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?

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Taking our planet's pulse

Photo: Clive Simpson
High resolution radar data maps of Europe, North America and other key parts of the world captured on a space shuttle mission 14 years ago have been made public for the first time this month.

Former Nasa astronaut Kathy Sullivan, now head of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), welcomed the release of previously secret data. "The declassification of 30 metre elevation data represents a vast improvement over the previous freely available data set which resolved to just 90 m," she says.

This second tranche of high resolution data to be released under the direction of  President Obama follows on from highly accurate terrain maps of Africa which became available in October.   

Nasa's ground-breaking Shuttle Radar Topographic Mission (SRTM) recorded digital elevation data (DEMs) in February 2000 for over 80 per cent of the globe - but until now only a 90 m resolution version was released.

The 30 m resolution data was kept secret for use by the US military and intelligence agencies - but even the 90 m resolution data revealed for the first time detailed swaths of the planet's topography previously obscured by persistent cloudiness.

"SRTM was among the most significant science missions the shuttle ever performed," says Michael Kobrick, SRTM mission project scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). "It's probably the most significant mapping mission of any single type ever."

SRTM consisted of a specially modified radar system comprising two radar antennas - one located in the shuttle's payload bay, the other on the end of a 60 m mast extending into space.

The surface of Earth was mapped numerous times from different perspectives and the combined radar data processed at JPL in California to produce a series of global topographic maps.

Topography influences many natural processes, such as the distribution of plant communities and the associated animals that depend upon them, weather and rainfall patterns, and the flow and storage of surface water.

The digital elevation maps benefit many activities, from aviation safety to civil engineering projects, and the data is helpful in predicting and responding to flooding from severe storms and the threats of coastal inundation associated with storm surges, tsunamis and rising sea-levels.

Dr Sullivan says aid organisations, development banks and decision-makers in developing countries will be able to better map and plan for climate-driven challenges.

“Space-based observations are the foundation for applications so environmental intelligence services are increasingly vital to decision makers in all sectors of society as they confront a rapidly changing world and uncertain future.”

She called upon the world space community to develop new and more resilient Earth observation systems that are now increasingly relied upon “take the pulse” of our planet .

"Measured data of our planet tells us we are living in a worrying world," she said. "We are seeing longer, more frequent and hotter heatwaves over most land masses and we expect to see that trend continue in the future."

Andes mountains in Ecuador, home to the highest active volcano in the world
Data is also revealing the remarkable pace at which Arctic sea ice is continuing to shrink and thin, and the Northern Hemisphere's snow cover is decreasing as global mean surface temperature rises. 

“Sea level has risen an average of 3 mm a year in the last several decades and will continue to rise in the decades ahead which will exacerbate the hazards that coastal communities face from coastal storms,” said Dr Sullivan. “This is a problem because humankind is concentrating increasingly in the coastal settlements.

"Many aspects of climate change will persist for centuries, even if right now we cease all CO2 emissions forever. Carbon that has been emitted in the past decades is locked in and the process that it has unleashed will take centuries more to play out.

"All of this leads to heightened social vulnerability, in a world where the population will increase from the current seven billion to nine billion by 2040 - and that implies that we will have to double the current food supply globally if we are to feed that larger population," she added.

"We are moving into a very different world. Environmental intelligence is a really critical asset and product that the world needs from space. It provides us with foresight about conditions that have not yet come to exist and about the solutions we need to plan ahead for."

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Trans-Atlantic dream

I flew into Toronto from London Heathrow T5 last month on one of BA’s new Boeing 787-8 Dreamliners. Was it a better experience? Well, if you want my honest opinion, not as good as I had expected.

I’m certainly not griping about the environmental credentials of this new mid-size, twin engine jet because the aircraft is 20 per cent more fuel efficient than similar sized aircraft it is designed to replace.

But sitting in BA’s tightly configured World Traveller class it seems that the commercial benefits of cramming in extra passengers have negated many of the design improvements touted to improve the experience of long distance air travel.

In sales-speak the Boeing 787-8 is a mid-size, dual aisle aircraft manufactured by then giant American aerospace company, Boeing. In normal conditions the Dreamliner will fly at Mach 0.85, or about 650 miles per hour, at a typical altitude of 40,000 feet.

Composite materials make up 50 per cent of the primary structure, including the fuselage and wing. The engine housings have serrated edges designed to reduce noise levels both inside and outside the cabin - and the aircraft also features stylishly raked wingtips to further aid fuel efficiency.

The windows are 30 per cent larger than those on most similarly sized aircraft and, instead of pulling shades up and down, passengers can adjust the incoming brightness with a button.

Using an electro-chromic dimming system, they turn from fully transparent to completely dimmed in gradual steps so, if you are lucky enough to have a window seat, the novelty certainly keeps you amused for a few minutes.

BA is steadily rolling out the Dreamliner to its fleet, promising a host of benefits to flyers, as well as a number of technological goodies for travellers to experience. But does travelling on the brand new aircraft make a difference?

The passenger cabin focuses on four areas of improvement - noise, lighting, air and 'comfort'. All this, British Airways says, will make for a much better in-flight experience, and one that leaves you refreshed when you get off the plane.

Comfort is supposed to come by way of new seats and the air part via better air conditioning. A mood lighting system and bigger windows are definite improvements but the success of the air conditioning seems much more down to the skills of the cabin crew.

More consideration might have been given to the piercing LED brightness of the individual overhead reading lights. It’s a bit all or nothing and, like with the windows, some kind of adjustment would have been nice to avoid the glaring dazzle when the rest of the cabin is in darkness.       

With its new engine design and improved sound dampening materials, Boeing has worked hard to reduce noise. The 787 was, indeed, quieter on take-off but the experience was less noticeable when it came to in-flight noise levels.

Dehydration can often be an issue on long-haul flights and British Airways says it has tried to address this by pressurising the cabin 2,000 feet 'lower' than on other aircraft which, in theory, retains more moisture in the air.

Like many who have posted their own comments on various travel websites, I was disappointed with the new seating design. I am average build and height with no excess weight but still found the seats snug and the leg-room cramped.

And, as soon as the seat in front was tilted backwards slightly, my personal entertainment screen became much too close for comfort, providing me with neck ache and eye strain for most of the eight hour flight.

No such worries for TV personality Lisa Snowden (BA publicity shot)

All these improvements are supposed to help fight jet lag but that was lost on me. I’m wide awake and writing this in my Toronto hotel room at 4 am the next morning. It’s very dark outside and the illuminated CN Tower dominates the view from my window.

The Dreamliner is definitely not a cure for jet lag and, if anything, I stepped onto Canadian soil feeling more wiped out than normal. I’ll need convincing otherwise - or the offer of a seat upgrade - before I consider one of BA’s Dreamliners for my next trans-Atlantic flight.