Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Day trip into history


I’ve arrived at Moscow's Domodevovo airport and seem to have been delivered through customs surprisingly quickly. Taxis drivers congregate and I scan their handwritten signs.

I head for one with a Metop logo, the spacecraft I have been brought out to see. I ask if it is for me but he says no. Ten minutes later he comes up and asks “are you Mr Simpson?” It's for me.

It’s a rough old car. None of the dials on car dashboard work so there is no speedo but I guess that’s no problem here. More importantly perhaps the radio is working fine, blaring out music and chat in Russian.

Moscow has many airports, both civilian and military. There is a lot of public transport too - trolley buses, railways and trams. At this time the main airport was not linked by rail to the city so it was a one hour taxi ride, if the traffic favours you.

I’m struck by the number of people walking on the side of busy multi-carriageway roads. There also seem to be a disproportionately large number of cars either broken down or parked on the roadside. It’s all very congested and polluted on this warm, summer’s evening - my first experience of Russia.

The sun is still quite high and brings a crisp, reddish outline to the buildings, homes and offices as we speed towards central Moscow and the ‘grand' Metropole hotel, which I understand is close to Red Square.

By now it is 9 pm in the evening local time and it has been a long day. I am one of the last of the international journalists to arrive to join this Press trip so there is just time to check in before we are whisked out and around the corner to a ‘traditional' tourist-style Russian restaurant.

Our hosts are dressed in colourful costume. It is dark and dimly lit inside and we are offered chunks of crusty bread to dip in salt, a traditional Russian greeting. There are shots of mead and of vodka for each of us, along with much cranberry juice and wine for the meal.  We dine on a Russian ‘tapas', followed by a salmon main course and apple pie. Mmmm, slightly English that - didn’t expect salmon and apple pie for my first Russian meal.

It's 11 pm and dusk is falling by the time we finish. Though it is late and the coming day will be long too, I decide to take a stroll to Red Square. It will be my only chance to see this Russian icon.

There are many people about, Muscovites, tourists and a few guards. It is beginning to get quite dark and the illuminated buildings look stunning. I take many photos and wish I had a tripod to reduce the low light camera shake.

The next morning we are braced for a 5 am (2 am UK time) alarm call. No time for any breakfast but there is a table to help yourself to hot takeaway teas and coffees as we are whisked onto a coach for a ride through early morning Moscow. There are many beautiful buildings. The sun is rising into a blue sky. It is still very quiet on the wide roads and boulevards. Much of the city is still asleep.

The trip to Baikonur involves a charter flight from Moscow’s Pulkovo airport. We board a Tupolev TU-134, which I would describe as a rather quaint, twin-engined jet.

It was old and stylish, with wooden fittings, and curtains at the windows. The seats had seen better days and I guessed the aeroplane had already plied many decades of service. Our flight time would be about three hours and ten minutes.

We were headed for Baikonur, the legendary Russian launch site where Yuri Gagarin blasted mankind on the first step of its on-going journey to the stars.

Though we would get to see just about everything else, on this occasion we were not there to witness an actual launch. We would, instead, be briefed on the final preparations for the upcoming flight of a new European weather and climate monitoring satellite, called Metop.

Baikonur is a Russian controlled enclave in Kasakhstan so thankfully there was no need for an additional visa. It is two hours ahead of Moscow, five hours ahead of UK time.

Even from the air you get the feeling that Baikonur is a remote and desolate place. After 30 minutes or so we've flown just east of the Aral sea, a shrinking area of water. Five times the size of France, Kazakhstan is bordered by Russia to the north, the Caspian Sea, and China to the southeast.

Most of the country is made up of steppe, the sand massives of the Kara Kum and the vast desert of Kizilkum, while in the southeast the mountains of the Tien Shan and the Altai form a great natural frontier with tens of thousands of lakes and rivers.

To the east of the Aral Sea, in an area of otherwise un-inhabited desert, lies the Baikonur cosmodrome. There are check points at all major entry points and its airport has two scheduled flights per week to Moscow.

Flying into Baikonur by plane, one can’t help but be struck by the huge expanses of flat sandy desert, broken only by patches of scrub vegetation and deep red scars of rock, exposed by the elements.

The plane looses height quickly, and with a couple of turns we are lined up on the runway. This is the 20 km of tarmac built for the Buran shuttle, which landed here after its one and only flight.

Despite the rough tarmac appearance our landing is smooth and the pilot lets the plane run out for some distance, before executing a sharp u-turn. Eventually he eases off ad we come to a holt near a near a green shed where two dogs run out to greet their Russian visitor. Luggage is carried from our aircraft in an army truck. There are no civilians in sight, it’s all uniformed military personnel.

It really is like a frontier town, nothing for miles around and about a 40 minute drive for project workers everyday to the famed cosmodrome. As western visitors we are definitely not allowed the freedom of hire cars so a coach has laid on by our hosts Starsem from the hotel.

When it was founded in 1955, the Cosmodrome was dubbed ’Baikonur’ in an attempt to mislead the West about its true location. Infact, the original Baikonur is actually a mining town about 320 kilometres northeast of the space centre.

Administered by Russia and constructed to service the cosmodrome, the city outside the space centre (now called Baikonur as well) went by the name Leninsk until 1995, when it was renamed by the then President, Boris Yeltsin.

Baikonur town is a shadow of its former self. Once formal parks and gardens are now patches of dirty sand and overgrown grass. At the height of the Buran/Energia programme - Russia’s answer to the Space Shuttle - the population peaked at around 130,000 but is now down to around 30,000.

As well as Yuri Gagarin, first human in space, the first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1, was launched from Baikonur. All subsequent Russian manned missions have lifted off from here, as well as other Earth orbiting, lunar and planetary missions.

As a republic within the USSR, Kazakhstan suffered greatly from Stalinist purges and environmental damage, and saw the ethnic Russian portion of its population rise to nearly 40 percent.

Our appropriately named Sputnik hotel was an unimaginative slab of a building, basic but pleasant enough inside. Opposite the main entrance was it’s saving grace, a monument to Sputnik.

There are monuments everywhere - no mistaking this as a space town. But the parks are mostly overgrown and many of the huge apartment blocks lie half empty.

Outside of the town, the desert-like scenery is unforgiving on the eye and it seems a long drive to Baikonur’s cosmodrome. The scrub landscape is an orange dusty colour and the landscape is littered with regimented and dissecting lines of pylons carrying electricity to the power hungry launch facilities. A railway track alongside the road adds some interest to the wide, flat landscape.

The cosmodrome, too large to fence-in, is a scattering of sites. Old facilities are left to decay, as is any unused or unclaimed item. Derelict buildings, discarded machinery and metalwork populate this desert.

The facilities in use today are smart and efficient. A big attraction of the launch site continues to be its cheapness and reliability in recent decades a significant amount of Western money has come into Russia’s satellite launching business..

We are waiting to catch sight for the first time of the famous launch gantries. The railway bends off to right on a spur. The big sky is overcast and grey but it's very warm, around 40 degrees. I’m pleased we're in an air conditioned coach. As we finally arrive at the cosmodrome there's a very real sense of walking in the footsteps of history.

Article and photos by Clive Simpson. For travel or writing commissions please email.

Monday, 16 February 2015

Mashed bananas

There's no real debate about the fact that bananas and milk both taste good and are generally a healthy option in our diet. But these modern-day food staples also have in common a much less savoury side. And the murky economics of 21st century banana retailing might be doing us all disfavour in the long run.

British supermarkets - and in particular the in-vogue Aldi and Lidl discounters - use both bananas and milk as huge loss leaders. And in the process are driving all but the biggest producers of both out of business.

“To industry observers, bananas demonstrate how low European hard discount pioneers will go to secure their customers' loyalty,” says Alistair Smith, international coordinator of Banana Link.

“The banana business model they have adopted is uncompromising and the impacts of the strategy on people and the environment are very serious.”

Unions representing plantation and packhouse workers believe the hard discounters are using the fruit as a hook to get new customers through their doors at the expense of those who labour hard to produce it.

It seems that Aldi, followed by Lidl, play the competition rules in their home market closer to the letter than to the spirit of the law.
Banana prices fixed by Aldi on a quarterly basis (since 2011) are for fruit delivered to the ripener, but the transport costs from there on are not included in the company's retail price-setting calculations.

If they were to include transport costs to depots and on to their stores, then Aldi (and other supermarket chains that follow the same business model) would almost certainly fall foul of the German competition authorities for below-cost selling when they retail bananas at 79 or 85 euro cents per kilo.

In the UK supermarkets like Asda - and retailers who only offer Fairtrade-labelled bananas, like J Sainsbury - have been selling loose bananas at or below cost for several years, making up some or all of the 'sacrificed' margins on bagged fruit. Unlike in France or Germany, below-cost selling in the British market is not illegal.

“This allows the major retailers in the UK who, with the exception of The Co-operative Group, all sell loose bananas at or below cost to argue legitimately they are not breaking any law and it is their own sovereign decision to fund this near-permanent rock-bottom price,” claims Smith.

“And so, led by Aldi and Asda, the race to the bottom in the European banana market is fuelled by the belief that cheap bananas are what everybody needs or wants.”

Even more serious for those trying to construct a sustainable future for the industry is that all attempts to reverse this race in Europe's two biggest markets are frustrated.

Tesco, Sainsbury and Waitrose have all attempted to raise the loose banana retail price since the permanent price war set in four or more years ago in the UK.

“But every time the cynical Asda price-setters have sat it out - safe in the knowledge, from their point of view, that every kilo sold at £0.68  (0,87 euro at 5 January 2015 rates) hurts their competitors' margins more than it hurts their own,” says Smith.

And it seems that as long as customers prefer a ready-bagged 'Pack of 10' that costs £1.00 a kilo in Asda, there are still profits to be recouped.

Other banana retailing worlds do exist. In France, apart from the occasional short-lived price promotion at 0,89 or 0,99 cents/kilo, it seems major retailers have little or no appetite for systematically sacrificing their margins as hard discounters do in Germany and the UK.

Carrefour, Auchan, Leclerc or Intermarché are far from infringing national legislation that prohibits below-cost selling.

Banana retail margins in France are more substantial, with an average retail price across all outlets exceeding 1,50 euro/kilo. Typically, a kilo of loose bananas from the same supplier sold in the UK at £0.68 can be found at €1,49 in a French hypermarket. Loose bananas in smaller city centre outlets are usually €1,79 or €1,99.

Of course, none of this value generated at the retail end in France is systematically available for investment in producing countries; and the Fairtrade market share is very small compared to the UK, even though it is growing again for the first time in many years; Fairtrade loose bananas are non-existent.

In North American markets banana retail margins are more typically where they were in the UK before price wars became a permanent feature.

“Along with consumption retail prices have risen in the USA - bananas have always liked to confound conventional economic theory,” adds Smith.

As US retail pricing shows, a global giant like Asda/Walmart does not have a single global policy when it comes to pricing. “We are dealing with what the retailers call 'price-flexing', but at a planetary scale when it comes to Walmart,” explains Smith.

Bananas are, of course, not the only Known Value Item (KVI) that suffer from inter-retailer price wars in the UK. Milk, oranges, bread and pork pies are victims too, with producers and those they employ at home and abroad the ones who have to pay the not-so-hidden costs.

More worrying for the competitors of Aldi and Lidl is it seems bananas may be helping bring people through the doors of the hard discounters as consumer change their shopping habits.

Complexity lies behind such a simple statement and Aldi's banana retail prices per kilo for conventional bananas in the UK are even harder to work out than in other retailers.

First, the retailer does not deal in loose bananas (where prices per kilo are posted for customers to see). They sell packs of three in a plastic tray at £0.39, a seven 'Funsize' pack at £1.09, or Organic Fairtrade at £1.39 per kilo.

Second, however, a truth that is of great concern to their UK competitors is that Aldi and Lidl both sell more than double the volume of bananas than their overall food market share would indicate.

Intriguingly for banana-watchers, it seems this high banana volume is not based on price, especially as the Aldi per kilo retail price works out at well above the £0.68 the other major retailers espouse.

Aldi and Lidl are attracting increasingly 'up-market' customers away from the big four or five traditional retailers, in many cases through massive advertising campaigns. And thesenew consumers are not the traditional hard discount customers with whom the German discounters forged their entrance into the UK.

“The lack of visibility of a price per kilo reinforces the theory that, actually, the great majority of banana consumers do not look at the price; they just know they are cheap,” says Smith.

Tesco trades almost one banana in every 13 sold in the European Union, more than any other retailer. But its biggest single food-line is barely contributing to profits, as bananas do for almost all other retailers worldwide.

Now that almost all the bananas they sell are sourced directly from growers across six countries, with written multi-annual contracts to boot, the company is feeling the market heat.

In both the UK and Ireland Tesco is losing customers to hard discounters who buy their bananas cheaper and sell them at a higher price. Economics on its head - but ethics too.

So Europe's biggest banana seller has decided to differentiate itself through a responsible sourcing strategy, which is still in its infancy but which shows enormous promise.

In 2014, two inter-related commitments set the stage for a transformation of the European banana market that should be welcome news for all.

Last March, a public document called ‘Trading Responsibly’ committed Tesco to covering the costs of sustainable production in all their banana supply chains; for the time being they are using the Fairtrade ‘minimum price’, set by Fairtrade International, as the benchmark for a sustainable price to its suppliers.

Where this price was not attained in 2014, the difference in price to suppliers has been set aside whilst a mechanism to transfer the money to workers and their families is being designed.        

Linked to that, in November, the company stated in a blog on its website that it will ensure that by 2017 living wages will be paid on all the banana plantations that grow and pack exclusively for Tesco (of which there are growing number spread across the four major Latin American exporting countries).

“A race to the top in the ethical content and the prices paid for bananas is now only being held back by the short-sighted strategies of a couple of other powerful multinational retailers,” says Smith.

A good rallying-point for all concerned is the third global conference of the World Banana Forum in the Dominican Republic at the end of June this year.

According to Kevin McCullough, head of campaigns at the Fairtrade Foundation, loose bananas bought in the UK today are so cheap that around three in four banana workers in countries that supply UK supermarkets live below the poverty line.

"Over the last 10 years, the retail price of loose bananas has halved while the cost of producing them has doubled - and it is banana farmers and workers in the developing world that pay the price, with many trapped in an unrelenting cycle of poverty,” he said.

"Retailers including Sainsbury’s, Waitrose and The Co-operative sell 100 percent Fairtrade bananas, which means they can provide an independent assurance that banana farmers and workers are not suffering as a result of low prices for shoppers.

"Recent research for the Fairtrade Foundation’s ‘Make Bananas Fair’ campaign found that more than eight in ten UK consumers are willing to pay more for their bananas, if the farmers and workers who produced them benefit.

"Instead of being shocked by the price of bagged bananas over loose ones we should be ensuring that banana farmers and workers aren’t being asked to pay the price for our cheap fruit."

Article by Clive Simpson. Note: Aldi, Lidl and Asda declined the opportunity to provide a response prior to publication of this article.

Friday, 6 February 2015

Global is new local

It turns out that the residents of Beijing and Delhi are not the only ones feeling the effects of their cities’ air pollution - an unwanted by-product of coal-fired economic development.

Researchers looking at how Asian pollution is changing weather and climate around the globe and have found pollution from China affects cloud development in the North Pacific and strengthens extra-tropical cyclones.

These large storms punctuate US winters and springs about once a week, often producing heavy snow and intense cold.

Tainted air is known to cross the Pacific Ocean, adding to homegrown air-quality problems on the US West Coast. But now scientists say the story doesn’t stop there - because pollution doesn't just pollute.

Researchers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and the California Institute of Technology, both in Pasadena, California, are looking at how Asian pollution is changing weather and climate around the globe.

Scientists call airborne particles of any sort - human-produced or natural - aerosols. And the simplest effect of increasing aerosols is to increase clouds.

To form clouds, airborne water vapour needs particles on which to condense. With more aerosols, there can be more or thicker clouds.

During the last 30 years, clouds over the Pacific Ocean have grown deeper, and storms in the Northwest Pacific have become about 10 percent stronger. This is the same time frame as the economic boom in Asia.

JPL researcher Jonathan Jiang and his postdoctoral fellow, Yuan Wang, designed a series of experiments to see if there was a connection between the two phenomena.

They used a numerical model that included weather factors such as temperature, precipitation and barometric pressure over the Pacific Ocean as well as aerosol transport - the movement of aerosols around the Earth.

They did two sets of simulations. The first used aerosol concentrations thought to have existed before the industrial revolution. The other used current aerosol emissions. The difference between the two sets showed the effects of increased pollution on weather and climate.

"We found that pollution from China affects cloud development in the North Pacific and strengthens extra-tropical cyclones," said Wang.

He explained that increased pollution makes more water condense onto aerosols in these storms. During condensation, energy is released in the form of heat. That heat adds to the roiling upward and downward airflows within a cloud so that it grows deeper and bigger.

"Large, convective weather systems play a very important role in Earth's atmospheric circulation," Jiang said, bringing tropical moisture up to the temperate latitudes. The storms form about once a week between 25 and 50 degrees north latitude and cross the Pacific from the southwest to the northeast, picking up Asia's pollutant outflow along the way.

Wang thinks the cold winter that the US east coast endured in 2013 probably had something to do with these stronger extratropical cyclones - and the intense storms could also have affected the upper-atmosphere wind pattern, called the polar jet stream.

Jiang and Wang are now working on a new experiment to analyse how increased Asian emissions are affecting weather even farther afield than North America. Although their analysis is in a preliminary stage, it suggests that the aerosols are having a measurable effect on climatic conditions around the globe.

Closer to home - a gas-fired power station in Spalding, Lincs, UK.                    Photo: Clive Simpson

Jiang says that Asian emissions have made him and some other climate researchers conceptualise Earth differently.

"Before, we thought about the north-south contrast: the northern hemisphere has more land, the Southern Hemisphere has more ocean. This difference is important to global atmospheric circulation and now, in addition, there's a west-east contrast.

“Europe and North America are reducing emissions - Asia is increasing them. That change also affects the global circulation and perturbs the climate."

Report by Clive Simpson freelance journalist

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