Thursday, 13 February 2014

Moon rover awakes

China's lunar rover - the first spacecraft to land on our nearest planetary neighbour in 37 years - has awoken after its troubled dormancy.

But scientists are still trying to find out the cause of a mechanical control abnormality that occurred as the craft went into a scheduled two-week hibernation period during the lunar ‘night’.

After several days of uncertainty Pei Zhaoyu, a spokesman for the Chinese space programme, announced this morning that the country’s moon rover had been restored to its normal signal reception function.

The problem emerged on 25 January before Yutu (Jade Rabbit) entered its second period of planned dormancy on the moon as lunar night fell.

"Yutu went to sleep under an abnormal status," Pei said, adding that experts were concerned that it might not be able to survive the extremely low temperatures during the lunar night.

"The rover stands a chance of being saved now that it is still alive," he said.

Its deployment on 15 December 2014 was the first successful landing on the Moon since 1976 and it was expected to operate for about three months.

Earlier reports in Chinese media had suggested that it had been declared dead on the surface of the moon.

In a report entitled ‘Loss of lunar rover’, the China News Service said that the rover "could not be restored to full function on Monday as expected" and was "mourned" by Chinese social media users.

China’s ‘Jade Rabbit’ lunar rover on the moon's surface
as seen from the landing platform in late December 2014.

The six-wheeled rover is designed to hibernate during the lunar night, when the sun dips below the horizon for two weeks and temperatures plunge to minus 180C (-292F).

The rover carries plutonium heaters to keep the rover's delicate electronics warm at night and is fitted with solar panels to generate power for the vehicle's science instrumentation, radio transmitters and other equipment. 

Before the sun goes down at Yutu's landing site, it is programmed to fold down its camera, antenna mast and solar panels. It is while executing these the rover ran into trouble 

Unofficial accounts posted on Chinese websites claimed it was unable to stow one of its solar panels over the retracted camera mast on top of the robot's instrument deck.

The Chang'e 3 lander and its rover (see Sleeping satellitemarked a milestone in China's ambitious long-term space exploration programme, which includes establishing a permanent space station in Earth orbit.

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

A perfect political storm

Severe storms continue to roll in from the Atlantic and Britain is in the midst of a winter that has been nothing like a normal winter. Most likely it’s a sign of times to come.

Scientists - without being able to be exact about timing - have long warned us the changes currently happening to our climate would result in more extreme weather.
In the midst of this crisis David Cameron, prime minister, and his cabinet colleagues have been largely content to trade accusations and shift blame, like water off a duck’s back.
Successive governments have done little to plan for a changing climate and the prime minister's bizarre finger pointing underlies how bankrupt his government has become when faced with a challenge of global significance.

His pre-election promise to deliver one of the greenest governments ever has been consistently and systematically dismantled.

Environment secretary Owen Paterson's skepticism on climate change – a ludicrous trait for one in such a position – led him to slash 40% from his departmental spend on developing the UK's adaptation to global warming.

The cost of this winter’s flooding episode alone will dwarf the millions saved by spending cuts. Fixing things and preparing for future storms will run into billions - and that's before we count the cost to our farmers and food production.

Back in 2008, following flooding in his constituency, David Cameron stated that with climate change most people “accept that floods are likely to be more frequent”.

Despite government spending on flood defences under the coalition being cut by 27% another minister, Teresa May, described it no less than six times during a Radio 4 news interview as an "inherited" problem. Maybe she meant from Biblical times.

So, is history repeating itself? All that time ago it was God warning the world - and only Noah listened. Today it is the scientists. Our elected politicians clearly have a lot more listening, and soul searching, to do.

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Early morning birdsong

Lighthouse on the cliff tops of Cromer, Norfolk.                                       Photo: Clive Simpson

Are you sleeping well on these long end of winter nights? If not then part of the answer may be in how dark your bedroom is.
As we travel through winter, with its emerging hint of longer days and promise of spring, it is appropriate to revisit the theme of some previous blog articles about night, darkness and the effect of artificial light on our modern lives.
The other morning I awoke midway through the night at around 3 am to hear birdsong outside. Normally a welcoming sound but at that hour, and with dawn still some four hours away, a little disconcerting. 
Birds singing during the ‘night’ is no longer such an infrequent occurrence. It is a somewhat troubling development and perhaps an indicator of wider factors at play. 
The birds it seems are often duped by our brightly lit streets, on-off ‘security’ lights and other forms of night-time illumination and general light pollution, into thinking daylight has arrived early.
And here’s the thing. All of us, birds included, are hard-wired to sleep in darkness, not in bedrooms full of light, computer monitors, digital alarm clocks or TV stand-by lights.
Chronic exposure to light at night is bad and, to understand why, we need to look into the past. Prior to the end of the Stone Age, humans were largely exposed to just two different kinds of natural light.
During the day we had the sun, while at night we had the moon and the stars, and perhaps the light from campfires. The binary day/night pattern was unrelenting, and our biological programming followed suit.
So why can't you get a good night's sleep? The problem is that many of us probably don't realise what makes us fall asleep in the first place. 
Compared to our ancestors our bodies’ circadian rhythms now also have artificial lighting at night (LAN) to contend with. Indoor lighting may be considerably less powerful than sunlight but it is certainly many orders of magnitude greater than star and moonlight. 
Melatonin suppression is key to understanding much of why LAN is bad for us, particularly in the winter months of the northern hemisphere.
This workhorse biochemical is produced at night when it is dark by the brain's pineal gland  to regulate our sleep-wake cycle. It lowers blood pressure, glucose levels and body temperature — key physiological responses responsible for restful sleep. 
The part of our brain that controls the body’s biological clock is known as the Suprachiasmatic Nucleus (SCN), a group of cells in the hypothalamus which respond to light and dark signals. 
The optic nerves in our eyes sense light and transmit signals to the SCN telling the brain when it is time to wake up, which also kickstarts other processes, like raising body temperature and producing hormones such as cortisol. 
Normally our cortisol levels are relatively low at night - allowing us to sleep - and higher during the day, allowing for the stabilisation of energy levels and the modulation of immune function. 
But LAN unnaturally elevates cortisol levels at night, which can then disrupt sleep and introduce a host of problems relating things like body-fat levels and insulin resistance. It also contributes to sleep debt and can disrupt the regulation of appetite.
If, on the other hand, our rooms are properly dark at night there is no optic signal to the SCN, so our bodies pump out the much needed melatonin. 
Light exposure during the previous day can also affect melatonin levels - studies have shown that exposure to bright room light before bedtime shortens melatonin duration by about 90 minutes compared to dim light exposure. In addition, exposure to room light during usual hours of sleep suppresses melatonin levels by more than 50 percent. 
So, even before you hit the hay, the light in your bedroom may be causing you problems. With the introduction of tablets (not the sleeping kind), smartphones, and energy-efficient LED light bulbs, it's an issue that's only getting worse. 
And just to add insult to injury, many modern LED (light-emitting diode) devices emit blue light which is especially good at suppressing melatonin. This is because melanopsin — a photo-pigment found in specialised cells of the retina involved in the regulation of circadian rhythms — is most sensitive to blue light. 
Regrettably, all this hormone and biochemical disruption is creating downstream effects — and studies are now showing correlations with weight gain problems, the incidence of cancer, depression and adverse effects on the immune system.
Essentially we need to keep our bedrooms as dark as possible and avoid blue light before sleep. 
You might want to think about this next time you leave even the dimmest lights on in your bedroom overnight — including your clock radio and the light that bleeds in through the curtains from nearby street lights. 
Why not try removing electronic equipment from the bedroom and using dimmer lights before before you turn in, as well as refraining from viewing TV, smartphones and computer screens for up to an hour before bed?
And if your bedroom is affected by artificial light from outside (and blackout curtains don’t do the trick) speak to your local council about street light shielding, and maybe your neighbour about realigning any problematic external floodlights.
Oh, and while we’re at it, switch off that bl**dy lighthouse! Sleep well, zzz zzz.

The Lighthouse Keeper is written by Clive Simpson - for more information or to get in touch click here

Saturday, 1 February 2014

Why does it always rain on me?

The Prince of Wales launched an unprecedented attack on climate change sceptics this week, describing them as the "headless chicken brigade" and accusing powerful groups of deniers of engaging in “intimidation”.

Charles, who has long campaigned to raise awareness of global warming and has hit out at sceptics in the past, unleashed his latest salvo during an awards ceremony at Buckingham Palace for green entrepreneurs.

"It is baffling that in our modern world we have such blind trust in science and technology that we all accept what science tells us about everything - until, that is, it comes to climate science," the Prince said.

"All of a sudden, and with a barrage of sheer intimidation, we are told by powerful groups of deniers that the scientists are wrong and we must abandon all our faith in so much overwhelming scientific evidence.

"So, thank goodness for our young entrepreneurs here this evening, who have the far-sightedness and confidence in what they know is happening to ignore the headless chicken brigade and do something practical to help,” he stated.

Charles, who made his comments at the inaugural Prince of Wales Young Sustainability Entrepreneur Prize, has previously urged world leaders must "face down a storm of opposition from all sides" in order to tackle climate change.

Last year he described those who questioned the need to act as "the incorporated society of syndicated sceptics and the international association of corporate lobbyists”.

Prince Charles was criticised at the time by the Global Warming Policy Foundation, a climate-sceptic ‘think-tank’ set up by former Conservative chancellor Nigel Lawson, which accused him of engaging in "apocalyptic rhetoric".

His latest comments came as it was announced that the deluge affecting much of Britain and Europe in recent weeks is officially the worst winter downpour over southern and central England in almost 250 years.

Rainfall for January - recorded at the Radcliffe Meteorological Station at Oxford University, the world's longest-running weather station - was greater than for any winter month since daily measurements began there in 1767.

The latest Met Office data also confirmed that the region stretching from Devon to Kent and up into the Midlands suffered its wettest January since its records began in 1910.

Ian Ashpole, of the Radcliffe Meteorological Observer, said the Radcliffe measurements went back more than twice as far as the Met Office records and provided a longer term indication of how things are changing.

A total of 146.9 mm of rain fell in January, beating the previous record of 138.7 mm in 1852. The new record is three times the average recorded for the month over the last two and a half centuries. 

It was also the wettest winter month – December, January or February – ever recorded, beating December 1914 when 143.3 mm fell.

In addition, the 45 day period from 18 December saw more rain at Radcliffe than for any such period in the observatory record. The total of 231.28 mm demolished the previous high of 209.4 mm, which fell from 1 December 1914.

For the UK, flooding has been identified as the most dangerous impact of climate change - and it is hitting harder and faster than expected. 

Scientists are now examining whether the current winder deluge is a result of the melting of the Arctic ice cap which has caused the jet stream to track further south, meaning more storms are channeled across the UK.

Prince Charles’ views are backed by mainstream science and it is reassuring to know that our future king is well versed in climate science - though it may be wrong to characterise the deniers in such a way.

Far from being ‘headless chickens’ they are part of an orchestrated and well-funded campaign with very clear objectives - to create a false debate and sow doubt in order to delay for as long as possible the kind of action required to limit CO2 emissions.

What they do is calculated and dangerous for the future of this planet and its people. Thank you, Prince Charles, for speaking up on behalf of normal people everywhere.

‘Why Does It Always Rain on Me?’ is the title of the hit song by Scottish band Travis, released in 1999 as the third single from their second studio album, ‘The Man Who’. It became the group's international breakthrough single and was their first Top 10 hit on the UK Singles Chart.