Monday, 9 May 2016

Junk yard Shuttle

Atlantis in KSC Visitor Complex                                     Photo: Clive Simpson

Keep you eyes open in and around Florida and you never quite know what you might see. Heading back to Orlando airport the other week demanded a quick detour for the final and unexpected opportunity to photograph a Space Shuttle in a most unlikely location.

Having previously visited Atlantis in its new home at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex a few days earlier this wasn’t quite the real thing - but the marine work yard setting on Merritt Island made up for that.

Glance straight ahead along the 528 out of Cape Canaveral and you might easily have missed Inspiration reposing, as if in a junk yard awaiting scrapage, amongst yachts and boats of all sizes that were in for repair or salvage.

A sign at the entrance discouraged tourists from popping in to take photos but the owner was just locking up and seemed happy enough to make an exception for a couple of journalists with English accents.

                                                                                        Photo: Clive Simpson
The timing was almost perfect because only a few days later on 27 April - and almost five years after NASA's last Space Shuttle had landed in Florida - an orbiter returned to the runway at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC).

Inspiration, a full-scale mockup - previously on display at the now-former location of the US Astronaut Hall of Fame in Titusville - was rolled out to Kennedy's Shuttle Landing Facility where it will be rebuilt into a travelling exhibit.

 LVX System, which acquired the 37 m replica from NASA, moved Inspiration from the Hall of Fame to a work yard in January. It intends to use the Shuttle for both educational outreach and marketing.

Over the past four months, work has been done at the marine yard to bolster the orbiter’s structure and aesthetics in preparation its move at the end of April.

Inspiration was barged from the Beyel Brothers Crane and Rigging yard on Merritt Island to the turn basin opposite the 52-story-tall Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) at KSC before being towed to the Shuttle Landing Facility.

Now parked on a concrete apron near the air traffic control tower at the midpoint of the runway, Inspiration will be further modified for its new ‘mission’ before heading out on America's waterways.

Although details are still being determined, LVX plans to prepare Inspiration so that it can travel by barge along the nation's rivers, stopping at ports where the public might otherwise never see a Space Shuttle.

LVX plans to outfit Inspiration's crew cabin and flight deck so that simulated missions can be ‘flown’ by those who visit the Shuttle on its tour. There’s life in the old girl yet!

Sunday, 8 May 2016

Arctic melt

New research has proposed a critical connection between sharp declines in Arctic sea ice and changes in the atmosphere - not only affecting ice melt in Greenland but also weather patterns all over the North Atlantic.

The studies centre on an atmospheric phenomenon known as ‘blocking’ - when high pressure systems remain stationary in one place for long periods of time (days or even weeks), causing weather conditions to stay relatively stable for as long as the block remains in place.

These can occur when there’s a change or disturbance in the jet stream, causing the flow of air in the atmosphere to form a kind of eddy, according to Jennifer Francis, a research professor and climate expert at Rutgers University.

Blocking events over Greenland are particularly interesting to climate scientists because of their potential to drive temperatures up and increase melting on the ice sheet.

“When they do happen, and they kind of set up in just the right spot, they bring a lot of warm, moist air from the North Atlantic up over Greenland, and that helps contribute to increased cloudiness and warming of the surface,” says Francis. “When that happens, especially in the summer, we tend to see these melt events occur.”

Two recent studies have suggested that there’s been a recent increase in the frequency of melt-triggering blocking events over Greenland - and that it’s likely been fueled by climate change-driven losses of Arctic sea ice.

A paper set to be published tomorrow (9 May 2016) in the ‘International Journal of Climatology’ reveals an increase in the frequency of these blocking events over Greenland since the 1980s.

A team of researchers led by the University of Sheffield’s Edward Hanna used a global meteorological dataset relying on historical records to measure the frequency and strength of high pressure systems over Greenland back to the year 1851. Previous analyses had only extended the record back to 1948, so the new study is able to place recent blocking events in a much larger historical context.

When the researchers analysed the data, they found that the increase in blocking frequency over the past 30 years is particularly pronounced in the summer, the time of year when blocking events are likely to have the biggest impact on ice melt.

What’s been causing this is a big source of interest for climate scientists hoping to gain a better understanding of the events affecting the vulnerable Greenland ice sheet.

In the new paper, Hanna and his colleagues suggested that declines in Arctic sea ice might be playing a role  -  and it’s a theory that’s heavily supported by another paper just out in the ‘Journal of Climate’. That study used both observational data and computer simulations to investigate the connection between sea ice declines and atmospheric changes in the Arctic.

Diminishing Arctic sea ice driven by climate change-induced warming is a well-established trend. Im April scientists reported that the maximum extent of Arctic sea ice over lastwinter had reached a record low for the second year in succession.

Interestingly, what happens on the surface of the ocean also has the potential to seriously influence activity in the atmosphere, adds Francis, a co-author on the study.

“When there’s less sea ice, obviously it’s a much darker surface that’s exposed to the sun - and especially in the late spring, early summer when the sun is really strong, that open water that would normally have ice on it absorbs a lot more of the sun’s heat.”

As a result, the surface of the ocean warms up and that extra heat is also transferred into the atmosphere. When this happens, lower layers of the atmosphere warm and expand, pushing up on higher layers of the atmosphere and causing the jetstream to bulge, as a result of the physics behind airflow in the atmosphere.

Since warm air takes up more space than cooler air, and the equator is the warmest part of Earth, the atmosphere is generally thickest there. This creates a kind of downhill ‘slope’ from the equator to the poles over which air flows.

Because the Earth is spinning so quickly, however, airflow ends up being pushed toward the east. The result is the jetstream - a current of air that generally flows from west to east around the world but also tends to meander north and south in wavy lines as it goes along.

If the Arctic warms more quickly than the rest of Earth, however, the downhill slope between the equator and the poles becomes less steep and this can weaken the jetstream’s flow, making it more susceptible to twists and turns.

So, as sea ice disappears and the atmosphere in the Arctic warms and expands, it can make airflow in the jetstream more likely to loop and bulge, causing the kinds of swirling eddies that result in blocking events.

Both the researchers’ observations and their model simulations strongly supported the idea that sea ice declines are a major factor in the frequency of blocking events over Greenland. When the researchers made changes only to sea ice in their model, they found an immediate connection to increased blocking, which in turn has led to increased surface melt on the ice sheet.

The findings may help explain some of the unusual weather patterns that have been seen in both Europe and North America in recent years. High pressure systems over Greenland can have the effect of blocking polar jet stream flow over part of the North Atlantic, causing the jet stream to split into branches and bringing about all kinds of severe weather events as a result.

In 2007, a high pressure blocking system over Greenland caused a split in the polar jet stream over the northern part of the North Atlantic, which ultimately resulted in extreme rainfall and flooding in the UK.

“To a certain extent, those conditions were repeated in summer of 2012, when we had a record wet summer in the UK,” adds Hanna. “And of course that was the year of the record high blocking conditions and extreme high temperatures and surface melt in Greenland.” 

So in this way, climate-induced changes in Greenland are not just causing problems locally - they’re creating mayhem throughout the North Atlantic, an example of the far-reaching influences of climate change and the interconnected nature of oceanic and atmospheric conditions around the world.

Greenland, of course, remains of prime concern thanks to its potentially devastating contributions to future sea-level rise. And, unfortunately, as more sea ice melts away, conditions are only likely to worsen, Francis said.

“It won’t be increased every single year, but the trends should continue downward — which isn’t good, because as we lose that ice that’s sitting on land on the Greenland island, it goes straight into the ocean and of course is one of the main contributors to sea-level rise,” she said. “That’s an effect that is felt all over the world.”

Saturday, 20 February 2016

Planet Earth is blue

I’m just about to book an online rail ticket for a trip into London from Peterborough next week on Virgin’s East Coast mainline service. It’s a fast, 50 minute journey and a flexible day return ticket, including London Underground, is £110.

On the other side of the world another member of the Virgin group - Virgin Galactic - has just unveiled its newly built spaceship, VSS Unity, in a ceremony at the company’s factory in Mojave, California.

Future tourist trips into near-Earth space - with five minutes of weightlessness - will probably take about the same time as my journey to London.

The big difference will be the price. Currently Virgin Galactic is selling advance tickets at £175,000, though it does suggest this is likely to reduce once things get properly underway.

Would I be interested in a return trip into sub-orbital space costing tens of thousands of pounds. Given the resources, of course, I would!

This will be the first time that ordinary people without any training will be able to view the curvature of Earth against the blackness of space, floating like an astronaut, and seeing our fragile atmosphere which is as thin as an eggshell.

“It’s almost too good to be true, isn’t it?” said Sir Richard Branson, the founder of Virgin group, after the gleaming white and silver spacecraft was wheeled into the centre of the cavernous hangar.

“I’ve always believed that having the best-looking planes and trains in the world, while not a guarantee, is a good place to start,” he joked. “Isn’t she beautiful?”

More than 700 people have already signed up to fly on Virgin Galactic’s trips into space, which will be launched from SpacePort America, New Mexico, but could one day even fly from the UK.

The development and testing for the vehicle, however, has all taken place in Mojave, at the same airfield where Chuck Yeager became the first human being to break the sound barrier in his Bell X1.

The day’s jubilant tone was tinged with poignancy as Virgin Galactic’s CEO, George Whitesides, recalled meeting with Branson in November 2014 on the day of the crash.

After a nine-month investigation, the National Transportation Safety Board ruled to be pilot error, the result of unlocking the ‘feathering’ system – designed to slow the craft down during re-entry – too early in the flight.

Virgin Galactic remains cagey about announcing an expected timeline for a first flight public – saying it wants to give the safety testing as much time as necessary. Two years would seem a good estimate.

Unity will be tested as a whole craft, first on the ground then in tethered flight to the carrying aircraft, then in controlled glide, and then finally in powered flight.

Branson admitted to reporters before the ceremony began that it was “pretty cool to be taking people into space” but said that the technology developed for space tourism would, he believed, one day also prove useful for edge-of-space high-speed intercontinental travel.

Tuesday, 16 February 2016

Gagarin and his hat

My career as a journalist has presented opportunities to interview people from all walks of life, not to mention many pioneering spacemen and women.

Yuri Gagarin, the first human to orbit Earth, was of course before my time. He died tragically in 1968, just as America was preparing to send its first citizens to the Moon and I was still learning my ABCs.

Not to be thwarted by this slight mis-match in time, I decided to catch up with Mr Gagarin retrospectively. Soon after his record-breaking flight he arrived in London as part of his post-mission world tour, a trip that the British government of the day initially wanted to keep low key.

In the end his popularity meant it was quickly transformed into a fully-fledged State visit and he returned to the capital following a fleeting diversion to Manchester at the behest of  the Union of Foundry Workers.

On a sunny July morning in 1961 our hero arrived in London for the second time and, during a stroll beside the Thames, it happened that nature called, as it implicitly does when Royalty and things of State are suddenly on your meeting agenda.

So it was as Mr Gagarin surreptitiously slipped his minder and popped into the Gents near the Tower of London for a quick brush-up that our time-travelling paths coincided - and opportunity knocked.

As we shared a handbasin and a leaky tap I was tempted to do the British thing and ask him what the weather was like in Moscow. But I just couldn’t take my eyes off his big hat.

And this is how my spontaneous interview with Mr Yuri Gagarin, Hero of the Soviet Union, Russian space pilot and all round good guy, came about.

At this point thanks are due  to my friend, fellow writer and map expert Brian Nicholls who had the presence of mind to capture the moment and kindly provided the following transcript of my bumbling interview, reproduced below in ‘print’ for the first time.

C: We have seen that iconic picture of you stepping off the plane at Heathrow. But tell me. Your officer’s hat - it does seem a little big. Is it where you keep your sandwiches?

Y: In our beloved homeland, Russia, we don’t use this expression ‘the biggest thing since sliced bread’. In fact, we don’t even know what sliced bread is! However, we have heard of the Earl of Sandwich. But you’re right, our biggest thing is our hats. All officers wear them. As for where we keep our sandwiches - well, I have been invited to Lyons corner shop and the Ritz - so maybe I could take some and put them under my hat. Ha! Under my hat! Get it?

C: Talking of headgear. I have also seen that rather jerky, rather shaky film of you staring out under your helmet. You certainly seemed to be bouncing around a bit. Is there any reason for that?

Y: In orbit it is particularly, as you say, ‘crammed’ with instrumentation. But it does not help if the engineer did not release the previous occupant, namely the dog. It was nothing to do with the speed, or the camera - it was me sitting on the damn dog. They should have taken it out first!

C: I see. Tell me about you being a hero in Russia. Do you get any privileges?

Y: In your country you get, I believe, Green Shield Stamps. Da?

C: And loyalty cards like Nectar, Virgin Atlantic Flying Club and, of course, The Co-operative.

Y: Ah yes. But I got... nothing. Absolutely nothing. No stamps, no vouchers... nothing for my amazing space trip. They said I never did enough orbits so now they are sending me round the world by our national propeller driven planes so I can get some stamps. Then I can cash in and get an iron for my wife who has been asking where I have been. Wives. They are the limit aren’t they?

By now he was crumpling a damp green paper towel and looking for the bin. I took my cue.

C: At this point, Yuri, I have to say thank you for talking to me. It has been a privilege. Do svidaniya.

Words by Clive Simpson & Brian Nicholls

Monday, 2 November 2015

Leaves on the ground

We are inbetween house moves and are back at The Jockeys for a few weeks, a holiday lodge in the stable blocks at Casewick Stud which lies in gently rolling Lincolnshire countryside a few miles east of Stamford.

The Stud adjoins Casewick Hall, the attractive grounds and outbuildings of which have a public footpath running through between the village of Uffington on the main Stamford to Market Deeping road and the attractive little hamlet of Barholm.

Casewick Hall is a medieval country house that was substantially remodelled in the 17th century. It is thought to be the location of a deserted medieval village mentioned as ‘Casuic’ in the Domesday survey and later as Casewick in a tax list of 1334. 

Daylight may be in short supply at this time of the year but compensations abound when the autumn sun breaks through and transforms the late afternoons into fiery golden vistas.

Our short walk from The Jockeys leaves the elegant driveway at Casewick Stud and joins a public footpath at the back of the hall via a gated, tree-lined avenue.

If you turn left the public footpath takes you diagonally across a large arable field until it abuts the main east coast railway, where there is a foot crossing for those heading towards Barholm.

The opposite direction cuts through the grounds and outbuildings of Casewick Hall, many of which have now been converted to homes.

An enclosed driveway lined by a tall beech hedge soon opens into parkland via a cattlegrid and gateway. Sheep wander nonchalantly across the drive and cows graze in the adjoining fields.

After half a mile the driveway crosses another cattlegrid under a second ornate gateway to join a twisting country lane and the pleasant stroll continues towards Uffington.

When the light is right photo opportunities abound and so here is a selection taken on a couple of recent late afternoon walks. Enjoy!


Monday, 19 October 2015

Ship of the Fens

There are times when embarking on a journey or overnight stay one is lucky enough to come across not one but several unexpected gems which combine to make such a visit to a new place so much more enjoyable and worthwhile.

Our recent trip to Ely in the heart of the Cambridgeshire Fens proved one such occasion. This ancient Fenland outpost founded on a lump of conglomerate rock rising incongruously above the surrounding flat land is, of course, most famous for its almighty and imposing cathedral.

Mindful of the notional nature of a fleeting visit and our proximity at the time to the town of Stamford it seemed that a cross country train would be the ideal point from which to commence this mini-visit. We alighted from the gently curving platform at Stamford’s neatly styled stone-built railway station and were soon rattling our way into Peterborough alongside the main east coast line.

One of the country’s fastest growing cities, Peterborough straddles flat fen countryside to the east whilst its western reaches extend into a pleasant and picturesque rolling landscape. A junction of styles and ambitions, it often feels like a contradiction - a dual-personality crossover of ancient and new, still defending its ancient coaching past as a stopover on the old Great North Road whilst being home for modern day commuters who flit backwards and forwards to the capital by high speed train.

After a brief stop at Peterborough’s newly re-modelled station our Stansted-bound train splits off on a spur to the east and is soon trundling across flat and diminutively featureless countryside. The monotonous monoculture fields that seem to reach as far as the sky and characterise this region are punctuated by extensive drainage systems with their horizon-defining banks and lone, singular roads appearing from nowhere to intersect the railway.

This late September morning was overcast and grey, offering an indistinct backdrop for the intense arable farming, the dull and distant appearance of which was compounded by greasy train windows. Soon the line passes through March, which was once the county town of the Isle of Ely until the latter ceased to exist by government decree in 1965. Just a few minutes later the distant cathedral of Ely  looms on the closing horizon like some giant alien artefact.

Our short journey through big skies across a bereft landscape has been as stale as the air on this cramped and fusty train that plies its way back and forth between Birmingham and Stansted airport. But the sun is extending a welcome as the coaches slow into Ely’s business-like station which, with its multiple platforms, is a busy cross-country junction linking Norwich, Cambridge, Peterborough and Birmingham, and London.

So what of the gem-like discoveries? Well, first and for such a small place, there is much within Ely that could easily fit the category, not least the stunning architecture of the cathedral itself.

But for now, we are seeking out something on a smaller scale that might otherwise slip by unnoticed. Topping & Company is a suitably fitting name for any high street shop and once inside you can see why the crime author Alexander McCall Smith described it as “the best bookshop in the world”.

For the book lover or casual shopper it is three floors of literary and tactile delight where serious browsers are afforded complementary coffee, served from a cafetiere in china cups all set on a neat wooden tray.

Beside the second floor window is a small wooden table and chairs where one can sip coffee and repose in a literary paradise, surrounded by the smell of book print and with a tantalising view across the street to the cathedral spires and ramparts. There is no sterility here - Toppings is a treasure.

If this is more than a fleeting, day-time visit there are plenty of overnight accommodations to select from. Nowhere is more welcoming option than Peacock’s Tearoom and Fine B&B, just a stone’s throw from the River Ouse and its boating community.

As the name would suggest, this is a traditional English tearoom - tasteful, sumptuous and quirky, with a hint of French eccentricity, all of which makes it popular with locals and visitors alike.

Peacocks is run by the charming and delightful George Peacock, an ex-criminal defence lawyer in another life, and his attractive wife Rachel. More recently they converted the upstairs of the two joined up 1800s cottages into a couple of delightful bed and breakfast suites, each with its own private sitting room, separate bedroom and pleasant facilities.

This really is English bed and breakfast as it should be. Peacocks exudes character and charm - overflowing book cases, comfortable old chairs, antique furniture and a restored market trolley doubling as a coffee table.

Pick the day of your visit to Ely wisely and you can also enjoy the city’s lively traditional market on Thursdays and Saturdays, along with an eclectic craft, flower and food stalls on occasional Sundays through the year.

On non-market days, however, the large, block-paved square is rather featureless and seems surplus to requirements - bland, unimaginative modernity contrasting starkly with the magnificent stonework and intrinsic creativity of the city’s cathedral - a ‘Ship of the Fens’ dating back to 672 AD when St Etheldreda first built an Abbey Church.

Words and photos: Clive Simpson

Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Renewables under attack

If you are colour blind there is sometimes a blurry line when it comes to discerning the difference between green and blue - as British Prime Minister David Cameron seems to be making increasingly clear.

His bold claim on coming to power for the first time in 2010 to be leading the “greenest government ever” was rapidly dismantled - almost as quickly as the floods and storms of 2013 destroyed homes and livelihoods.

This summer the UK has experienced one of its wettest ever August months and globally the year once again promises to be amongst the hottest on record. Glaciers are retreating and global sea levels have risen by 8 cm in two decades as a result of warmer ocean water and melting ice caps.

A growing body of evidence suggests that climate change is very real - and international negotiations on the establishment of climate change controls are scheduled to reach their peak in Paris in December.

Yet within a few months of being elected for a second term, Cameron’s majority Conservative government has pretty much made it clear it wants very little to do with renewable technology.

In June it announced cuts to financial support to developers of new onshore wind turbines, the cheapest form of renewable power available. And last week it announced it intends to slash subsidies that help families and small businesses install solar panels.

Why have David Cameron and his chancellor George Osborne decided over the last few months to abandon key government commitments to protecting the environment and its pledges to create new green technologies that could wean us off our urge to burn fossil fuels?

Meanwhile, a commitment by Britain’s biggest suppliers six biggest energy companies to help tackle climate change has been called into question after it emerged all have quietly dropped their green electricity tariffs.

Despite the major suppliers - which together provide 90 per cent of UK household power -  all making public commitments to tackle climate change by reducing carbon emissions not one of now offers a renewable energy tariff.

The UK’s solar industry, which is already reeling from a wave of damaging policy changes, was shocked and taken by surprise by last week's government publication of its scheduled review of the Feed-in-Tariff  (FIT) scheme for supporting small-scale renewables.

The Solar Trade Association (STA) had already been engaging with officials and ministers over the last few months demonstrating how the FIT framework could be reformed to provide better value for money while targeting parity with fossil energy around 2020.

Its ‘Solar Independence Plan for Britain’, published in June, sets out proposals based on a detailed budget model of the solar Feed-in Tariff. The STA estimates that it will cost just another £1.70 per year on energy bills between now and 2020 to deliver a million more solar homes and grid parity.

Mike Landy, head of policy at the STA, says: “We don't agree with these self-defeating proposals and will be urging DECC to take up our alternative. A sudden cut combined with the threat of scheme closure is a particularly bad idea – it will create a huge boom and bust that is not only very damaging to solar businesses and jobs but does nothing to help budget constraints.

“We really are astonished at how self-defeating these proposals are. Instead, we are calling on the government to work with the solar industry to deliver our plan for a stable glide path to subsidy-free solar.”

Like a number of other issues that have suddenly come to the fore, the Conservative manifesto for the elections in May said nothing about attacking the British solar industry, which has flourished thanks to public support and delivered unprecedented cost cuts.

The STA, along with 100 local authorities, community energy groups and professional associations, has already written to the Prime Minister in support of FITs and days that when Parliament returns it intends to grow this alliance and fight hard for a more sensible policy.

Landy adds: “If DECC (Department of Energy & Climate Change) and the Treasury insist on making such damaging and unjustified cuts they will need to develop alternative policy proposals to drive commercial sector deployment. The upcoming Energy Efficiency Tax Review provides exactly the opportunity to do so. But we need to see some positive proposals very quickly to mitigate the shattering of confidence across the solar industry.”

It would seem that the government has once again adopted a short-sighted, market-driven attitude - not just from the perspective of national prestige but also in terms of lost opportunity. Sooner or later the world is going to end up depending on renewable power and the UK has much to gain from developing not shrinking its expertise and influence.

The proposals set out by DECC, which is itself under threat, will see tariff rates for domestic schemes (now up to 10kW) cut from 12.9p today to 1.63p/kWh next January. The deadline for responses to the consultation is 23 October and you can make your own comments using this link - online survey