Tuesday, 15 November 2016

Land of make believe


“Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast,” said Alice in Lewis Carrol’s Alice in Wonderland.

And at times in recent months it has seemed that we too might be living in some kind of political fantasy land. But as we jump from one preposterous situation to another one thing is becoming clear - the world is being rapidly transformed in a period of dizzying transition.

For centuries the dominant form of information was always the printed page, meaning knowledge was primarily delivered in a fixed format that encouraged readers to believe in stable and settled truths.

Now, we are seemingly caught in a series of confusing battles between opposing forces: between truth and falsehood, fact and rumour, kindness and cruelty; between the few and the many, the connected and the alienated.

Between too the open platform of the world wide web - as its architects envisioned it - and the gated enclosures of Facebook and other social networks; between an informed public and a misguided mob.

What is common to these struggles - and what makes their resolution an urgent matter - is that they all involve the diminishing status of truth.

Which is not the same as saying there are no truths because, as 2016 has made clear on both sides of the Atlantic, it simply means we can no longer sensibly agree on what those truths are.

In our 24/7 inter-connected culture what now counts as fact is increasingly a view that someone feels to be true. And technology (social media like Facebook have become purveyors of ‘news’) has made it very easy for these ‘facts’ to circulate in a cascade of information with a speed and reach that was unimaginable even a decade ago.

It means the political bombshells of the year, such as the UK’s referendum vote result and the emergence of Donald Trump as President-elect, are not simply the by-products of a resurgent populism or the revolt of those left behind by global capitalism.

Like Brexit, the rise of Trump is also partly a symptom of the rise and rise of social media and at the same time the mass media’s growing weakness, especially in controlling the limits of what it is acceptable to say.

During a vitriolic campaign Trump articulated many ‘truths’ which quickly circulated on social media and became enough on their own to help him secure a winning share of the popular vote.

Such a situation reflects too the ‘promises’ made by those campaigning to leave the EU during the UK referendum. Even basic scrutiny at the time revealed many to be empty, vacuous and unworkable promises. But they all too easily became accepted as ‘truth’.

For the UK, an unsavoury picture of a post Brexit world is now beginning to emerge: one where the rule of law, due process and even fact itself might easily crumble before the might of the mob, who themselves are directed by the Machiavellian schemes of press barons and wannabe dictators.

It seems that prime minster Theresa May appeals to a stereotype that has a deep grip on the English psyche. Sober and commonsensical, she portrays a moral seriousness one might expect from a vicar's daughter, whilst at the same time displaying an Alice in Wonderland quality.


Her public image - based on a track record of capitulation since taking office - might be described as something akin to "pretence” and, so far, her dominant side seems even more superficial than David Cameron.

It is a tribute to the power of cliches and soundbites that we fail to see what is in front of our noses and so few have noticed - the main reason Teresa May is prime minister is because she put ambition before principle.

During the referendum campaign, and probably ever since, May has proved herself somewhat ordinary as an orator of any note. There is certainly no evangelical fervour that her upbringing as a vicar's daughter might have instilled.

But as a politician on the make she seems close to perfect. When Craig Oliver, David Cameron's former chief of communications, wondered if she was secretly an ‘enemy agent’ for the leave side, he was perhaps being too devious.

In fact, May was just making a smart political and career move. Apart from speaking in secret to the likes of Goldman Sachs, she kept her views about the economic consequences of Brexit quiet - so that the Conservative right might accept her as leader if Cameron lost.

Failing to state your honest opinion on the most important decision Britain has taken in decades may seem cowardly enough. But the consequences of May's pretence do not stop with the referendum.


Her manoeuvres since the summer (including on Hinckley B, Heathrow airport and Nissan) have forced her into a position where she must make arguments she cannot hardly believe, on behalf of causes she cannot possibly believe in.

Far from ‘taking back control’, her leadership to date also shows that Brexit is depriving ordinary people of the ability to take decisions, giving privileges to the special interests the leave campaign claimed it was fighting against, and imposing burdens on the taxpayer far greater than the mythical £350 million a week that Vote Leave claimed was sent to Brussels.

May and her defenders say she is responding to the absolute will of the British people but even without the muddy waters of truth versus untruth and a still confusing Brexit strategy, a 52-48 vote was hardly the people speaking as one.

Perhaps, in this post-referendum, pre-Brexit Britain we can more easily understand our prime minister by seeing that she is no different to many others when it comes to abandoning beliefs in favour of ‘truths’.

Disappointingly since taking office, she has failed to level with the public and confront them with the hard choices ahead. Rather than speak plainly, she has proffered the notion that Brexit will be painless.

Now, as prime minister of 'pretences', May is running a government where feelings seem to matter more than fact. She pretends the country should leave the EU, even though she knows its best interests are as a member of the single market.

She offers the illusion that the people are taking back control, even as the freedom to act is lost. She cuts deals in secret, in the hope that the public will never realise that her land of make-believe is going to be an expensive and very different place to live.

For many reasons, the political earthquakes of 2016 have been tectonic in nature and herald a significant lurch to the right in global politics where false truth and self-interest trumps rational and reasoned argument.

How far this continues - and even spreads to other countries in the year ahead - remains to be seen. Strong, statesmanship-like leadership is called for as the clouds of chaos amass menacingly on the political and economic horizons.

Monday, 12 September 2016

Clear and present danger


We’ve had a record-breaking summer and records continue to tumble. And this is not just where the Olympics or Paralympics are concerned.

It’s almost mid-September and a large part of the UK is experiencing one of its hottest days on record for the time of year.

Take a snapshot view of the world in any month of 2016 so far and it seems that we are slipping faster than anticipated into more extreme and unpredictable weather.

Unprecedented temperature levels around the globe mean more heatwaves, flooding, wildfires and hurricanes - climate change is very much becoming a here and now thing rather than something for the future.

In the light of our planet's record-breaking month-on-month temperatures, experts admit they have been taken by surprise and had expected "nothing like" this level of global warming.

The first six months of 2016 averaged 1.3 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial average, which seems too close for comfort to the ambition agreed at the Paris climate summit last December to limit warming to 1.5C.

Globally, July was the warmest month since modern record-keeping began in 1880, with each month since October 2015 setting a new high mark for heat.

The planet is warming at a pace not experienced within the past 1,000 years at least, making it “very unlikely” that the world will stay within a crucial temperature limit agreed by nations just last year, according to NASA’s scientist Gavin Schmidt.

Temperature records  going back further than the 19th century - taken via analysis of ice cores and sediments - also suggest that the warming of recent decades is out of step with any period over the past millennium.

“In the last 30 years we’ve really moved into exceptional territory,” says Schmidt, who is director of Nasa’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies. “It’s unprecedented in 1,000 years. There’s no period that has the trend seen in the 20th century in terms of the inclination of temperatures.


Schmidt believes there is a 99 per cent chance that 2016 will be the warmest year on record, with around 20 per cent of the heat attributed to a strong El Niño climatic event. Last year is currently the warmest year on record, itself beating a landmark set in 2014.

“It’s the long-term trend we have to worry about though - there’s no evidence it’s going away and lots of reasons to think it’s here to stay,” Schmidt warns. “There’s no pause or hiatus in temperature increase and people who think this is over are viewing the world through rose-tinted spectacles. This is a chronic problem for society.”

Recent research has established that just five more years of carbon dioxide emissions at current levels will virtually wipe out any chance of restraining temperatures to a 1.5C increase and avoid runaway climate change.

Temperature reconstructions by NASA - using data from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) - show that the global temperature typically rose by between 4-7C over a period of 5,000 years as the world moved out of ice ages.

The temperature rise clocked up over the past century is around 10 times faster and the increasing pace of warming suggests the world will heat up at a rate at least 20 times faster than the historical average.

Dr David Carlson, director of the World Climate Research Programme, adds that models of future warming failed to predict the high temperatures recorded this year, suggesting we might be under-estimating how hot the world will get.

“What concerns me most is that we didn't anticipate these temperature jumps,” he says. “We predicted moderate warmth for 2016 but nothing like the temperature rises we’ve seen.

As we in the UK swelter in abnormally hot September weather it seems that massive temperature hikes, volatile weather and extreme events like floodings and droughts are already becoming the new normal for the world at large.

One might expect such impending natural catastrophe to be something of a priority for any new leader but it seems British politics is determined to bury its head in a quagmire of introspection and banality.


Prime Minister Theresa May, without so much as a nod to the country’s representative democracy, is doggedly pursuing a spurious policy to calve up the United Kingdom and separate it from the rest of Europe.

And, while London burns - to borrow a metaphor from last week’s anniversary of the Great Fire - she also sees it as a priority to pursue an unpopular new policy to create more Grammar schools over and above all else.

Many of the athlete's who accomplished greatness at the 2016 Olympics and Paralympics faced obstacles along the way but found their success by moving through and overcoming their personal roadblocks.

Will our politicians show the same kind of courage? The challenge ahead is a daring one, calling for exceptionally brave and visionary political leadership.

So far in this record breaking summer the UK’s new political masters have shown little sign of that, seemingly content to re-arrange deckchairs on the sun-deck while HMS Brexit heads for the nearest iceberg (assuming there are any left).

Friday, 29 July 2016

Rosetta inspires Vangelis album


Legendary composer and pioneer of electronic music Vangelis has produced a brand new album, ‘Rosetta’, inspired by ESA’s Rosetta mission.

The release of the album by Decca Records on 23 September will coincide with the culmination of Rosetta’s 12-year mission to orbit and land its Philae probe on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Rosetta is set to complete its journey in a controlled descent to the surface of the comet on 30 September.

The story of this mission fuelled Vangelis’ long-held passion for space and inspired him to create his first new studio album in 18 years.

Vangelis’ music is often linked to themes of science, history and exploration. Alongside his Academy award-winning score for ‘Chariots of Fire’, he has written for films including ‘Bladerunner’, ‘Antarctica’, ‘1492: Conquest of Paradise’, ‘The Bounty’ and ‘Alexander’.

“Mythology, science and space exploration are subjects that have fascinated me since my early childhood. And they were always connected somehow with the music I write,” said Vangelis.
ESA’s connection with Vangelis goes back several years to when ESA astronaut André Kuipers was on the International Space Station. André is a big fan and he had a lot of Vangelis’ music with him in space.

After sharing stories and experiences with André via video call from the ISS, Vangelis was inspired to write some music for ESA to mark the landing of Philae on the comet in 2014.

To Vangelis, music is a sacred, basic force of the Universe, its purpose to elevate, inspire and to heal humankind. Never has this been more obvious than on ‘Rosetta’, an album that perfectly blends his fascination with the Universe and his ability to compose stirring music.

“With music, you can enhance emotions and create memories: I believe that what Vangelis wanted to do was share a lasting memory of our Rosetta mission through his music,” says Carl Walker, from ESA’s communication department.

Vangelis has dedicated this new album to everyone who made the ESA’s ongoing Rosetta mission possible, in particular extending the track called ‘Rosetta’s Waltz’ as an expression of his appreciation to the mission team.

“Rosetta has been an amazing journey for everybody involved, both scientifically and technically, but it has also connected emotionally with so many people around the world,” says ESA’s Prof Mark McCaughrean, senior science advisor in the Directorate of Science.

“So you can imagine how proud we were when one of the world’s great composers Vangelis made some music for us at the time of landing, and how excited we are that he’s put together a whole album of original music about this astonishing adventure.”

Thursday, 14 July 2016

Peake surprised at Brexit

ESA's first British astronaut Tim Peake during his spacewalk in January.
Britain must ensure that its world class scientific research is not harmed as a result of the country's referendum decision to leave the EU, the astronaut Tim Peake has said.

Speaking ahead of his visit to the Farnborough International Air Show, the former helicopter test pilot, who returned from a six-month mission to the International Space Station (ISS) in June, described the referendum result as “a surprising decision for everybody”.

But he added that it was important for the country to reunite and get on with securing the best future for Britain.

“Though I missed a lot of the campaigning I’m aware now it caused divisiveness and some of it was not done in the most positive fashion,” he told The Guardian newspaper. “We have to put that behind us now and work on unity and moving forwards.”

Peake said the protection of UK scientific research was a priority in the negotiations that lie ahead.

“We have to make sure we don’t harm ourselves in areas where the EU was particularly good for us. I don’t want to see scientists being punished, and this having negative effects on our science. These are important areas for us to focus on now.”

Night-time Britain and France by Tim Peake taken from the ISS in April.
Scientific research is a major contributor to the UK economy but ironically could be one of the biggest losers as a result of Brexit.

UK universities receive 10 per cent of their research funds from the EU and much of the country’s science is supported by grants from Brussels.

After only two weeks there are already signs that UK organisations are being passed over for EU science collaborations because their future involvement cannot be guaranteed.

Peake had barely been back on Earth a week when Britain voted to leave the EU in a marginal referendum that threw the future unity of the UK into doubt and sent the major political parties into crises from which they have yet to recover.

“I have seen some comments on Twitter saying everything was fine until Tim Peake came back to Earth,” he told the Guardian. “That did make me feel rather bad.”

Yesterday  (Wednesday, 13 July) Peake flew into London Heathrow from Houston to be greeted by a welcome poster featuring his own face. He was back in England for the first time in seven months following his six-month trip to the ISS.


To celebrate his mission as ESA’s first British astronaut and to welcome him home to the UK, Heathrow unveiled Tim as one of its iconic welcome posters which will be viewed by 75 million passengers a year.

Photographs of Tim with his arms outstretched in his distinctive blue overalls, will be showcased across all terminals as part of Heathrow’s welcome campaign which has become a well-recognised greeting for passengers arriving at the airport.

Monday, 11 July 2016

Seeing the (LED) light


There is something of an evangelical fervour about the way public lighting authorities are installing new LED lighting on our streets and roads across the UK.

But in the rush to cut power consumption and save money long-term, our public authorities and the lighting industry itself may be turning a blind eye to serious health risks posed by this new technology.

Increased risks of cancer, diabetes and cardiovascular disease is hardly being championed by the lighting companies that market and promote the benefits of light emitting diodes (LEDs).

A report released this summer by the American Medical Association (AMA) Council on Science and Public Health confirms suspected impacts to human health and the environment caused by excessive amounts of blue light.

‘Human and Environmental Effects of Light Emitting Diode Community Lighting’ presents significant implications for the ongoing, worldwide transition to LEDs as the outdoor lighting technology of choice.

While it supports the use of LED lighting in order to reduce energy consumption and the use of fossil fuels, it also recognises that some LED lights are harmful.

The report details findings from an increasing body of scientific evidence that implicates exposure to blue-rich white light at night to increased risks for cancer, diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

Blue-rich white LED street lighting can be five times more disruptive to our sleep cycle than conventional street lighting, according to the report.

Recent large surveys have documented that brighter residential night-time lighting is associated with reduced sleep, impaired daytime functioning and a greater incidence of obesity.

As a result of a potential risk to public health from excess blue light exposure, the AMA report encourages attention to optimal design and engineering features when converting from existing lighting technologies to LED.

These include requiring properly shielded outdoor lighting, considering adaptive controls that can dim or extinguish light at night, and limiting the correlated colour temperature (CCT) of outdoor lighting to 3000 Kelvin (K) or lower.

Colour temperature is a measure of the spectral content of light, and higher CCT values indicate a greater amount of blue light.

"This is a timely and important policy statement by the AMA," says Richard Stevens, a cancer epidemiologist at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine and co-author of the report.

"As with most new technology, everyone is enamoured at first because it's so great and does so much for us, but the downsides eventually become apparent. Electric light has great attributes, but we now realise, when poorly used and abused, there are also many problems."

The AMA findings also underscores the fact that detrimental effects of blue-rich LED lighting are not limited to humans.

 “Other species are just as vulnerable to disruption of their circadian rhythms as are humans, and often more so,” explains Travis Longcore, Assistant Professor of Architecture, Spatial Sciences, and Biological Sciences at the University of Southern California.

“Those impacts and others can be reduced by limiting blue-light emissions. Policy makers, government officials, and the American public now have the science and the imprimatur of the AMA to insist that LED installations be designed to reduce impacts on wildlife and human health.”

The issue is an important one and we should have the confidence that it is being properly addressed by those in the UK responsible for our night-time lighting - including local authorities, public bodies and the lighting industry itself.

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Who do we think we are?


Britain is about the decide who it wants to be. Are we so different from others that we cannot play by shared rules? Are we one member in a family of nations, or a country that prefers to keep itself to itself and bolt the door?

All of these questions were always on the ballot in this week’s fateful referendum. But after a campaign that has been nasty, brutish and seemingly endless, the UK will be voting on another question too.

With all the differences and the diversity among all of us who already live on these islands, how are we all going to get along? In the final run-up to polling day this contest has risked descending into a plebiscite on whether immigrants are a good or a bad thing. Consider the dark forces that could so easily become emboldened by a narrow insistence on putting the indigenous first.

The backdrop has been the most unrelenting, unbalanced and sometimes xenophobic press assault in history. Leading political lights of leave have claimed to be pro-immigrant and yet have, at the same time, been ruthlessly fearmongering about Britain being overrun by Turks, after a Turkish accession which they understand perfectly well is not on the cards.

The mood is frenzied, the air thick with indignation, and clouded with untruths. The best starting point for Britain to reach a sound decision on Thursday is to cool the passions of the heart, and listen to the head.

All reason tells us that the great issues of our time have little respect for national borders. The leave side has attempted to turn “expert” into a term of abuse, but one does not need the IMF, the Bank of England or any special knowledge to grasp that these border-busting issues range from corporate power, migration and tax evasion to weapons proliferation, epidemics and climate change.

Not one of them can be properly tackled at the level of the nation state. Impose controls on a multinational corporation and it will move to a softer jurisdiction. Crack down on tax evasion and the evaders will vanish offshore. Cap your own carbon emissions in isolation and some other country will burn with abandon.

In so far as any of these problems can be effectively addressed, it is through cooperation. A better world means working across borders, not sheltering behind them. Cutting yourself off solves nothing. That, fundamentally, is why Britain should vote to remain in the club that represents the most advanced form of cross-border cooperation that the world has ever seen.

There are certainly flaws in the way that Europe is constituted and led. The EU is a union of nations working together, it is not and never will be a United States of Europe, and so its leadership is bound to depend on the imperfect leadership of all these countries.

The single currency has been a flawed project and has set one nation against another, forcing the poor to pay the price for propping up a shonky structure. But Britain is not part of the eurozone, and the EU is not a plot against the nation state. Britain is still robustly herself too, warts and all.

The only argument about the immediate economic effects of Brexit is the depth of the hit that the economy would take, not whether it would take a hit at all.

The political victors would not be those who wish to rebuild politics. They would be rightwing Tories, and ruthless plutocrats who want freedom to reorder Britain and make money as they choose.

They have no interest in fairer taxes on the rich, or higher spending on the NHS. They have spent their so-called Brexit dividend – which in reality is almost certainly a negative number, not the mendacious £350m a week which has earned them an official reprimand – many times over.

A significant group of them are flat-taxers who are whispering about deep cuts to corporation taxes. Facile Brexiter talk of a more buccaneering Britain – presumably a country fit for Sir Philip Green or Fred Goodwin to capture other galleons – offers precisely nothing to assuage the fears of elderly voters who simply want nothing more to change.

It is a fantasy to suppose that, if Britain votes to leave, these victors would want to maintain or extend protections for pensioners or workers. On the contrary. Human rights, equality, health and safety, and aid to refugees would be out of the window.

Those who vote to leave as a protest against the elite will, in truth, be handing the keys to the very worst of that very elite. There would be no ‘taking back control’ for most working-class leave voters, just less control over their diminishing share than ever.

Those who have not yet made up their mind in this campaign should ask themselves this: do you want to live in a Britain in the image of Nigel Farage? Yes or no? For that’s the choice on offer. If the answer is no, then vote remain.

Thursday’s vote has become a turn-in-the-road issue for Britain and Europe alike. Imagine a world without the EU – without the clout to face down Russia over Ukraine, without the ability to put together coherent answers to carbon emissions, to protect standards at work from a race to the bottom.

Like democracy, the EU is an imperfect way of answering the modern world’s unrelenting challenges. But the answer to its imperfections is to reform them, not to walk away – still less to give in to this country’s occasional hooligan instinct in Europe.

Like democracy, whose virtues are in our minds afresh after the violent death of the committed and principled MP Jo Cox, the EU is not just the least bad of the available options. It is also the one that embodies the best of us as a free people in a peaceful Europe.

Vote this week. Vote for a united country that reaches out to the world, and vote against a divided nation that turns inwards. Vote to remain.

Based on an article which first appeared in The Observer newspaper

Friday, 3 June 2016

Arizona asteroid explosion

The explosion of a small asteroid over Arizona in the early hours of 2 June is a timely reminder of the unseen and sometimes unpredicable threat facing our planet.

The asteroid hit Earth's atmosphere at around 4 am local time and the airburst cause by its explosion shook the ground below and produced a flash of light 10 times  brighter than a full Moon. NASA described as a three metre wide space rock that originated from beyond the orbit of Mars.

Shortly after the explosion, Mike Lerch walked out the front door of his house in Phoenix on the way to work. "At first I thought it was a rocket launch," he says. "Now I realise it was debris from the asteroid."

The smoke trail remains shown clearly in his picture below were widely visible as they twisted in the winds high above Arizona.


Bill Cooke of NASA's Meteoroid Environment Office says this is the brightest fireball detected in the eight-year history of NASA's All Sky Fireball Network, an array of cameras that monitors fireball activity across the USA.

The flash itself was so bright, it briefly turned night into day, graphically illustrated in these before, during, and after shots captured by one of the NASA cameras in Sedona, Arizona. The camera was facing NE so it did not record the asteroid itself.


The fact that the explosion blinded most cameras that saw it initially complicated analysts' efforts to pinpoint the asteroid’s nature and origin. Ultimately, however, they were able to draw firm conclusions - the mass of the asteroid was some tens of tons and it exploded with a kinetic energy of approximately 10 kilotons.

"There are no reports of any damage or injuries -just a lot of light and few sonic booms," says Cooke. "If Doppler radar is any indication, there are almost certainly meteorites scattered on the ground north of Tucson.”

Dangers posed by asteroids impacting Earth was one of the topics discussed at the 4th Manfred Lachs International Conference on Conflicts in Space and the Rule of Law held in Montreal, Canada, the weekend before.

Comets and asteroids colliding with Earth pose a serious threat to humanity yet we lack effective means to discover them and alert the public to imminent dangers. Even the impact of a small celestial body may lead to serious loss of life, significant material and ecological damage.

For more information see 'Protecting Earth from cosmic disasters' in the spring 2016 edition of 'ROOM - The Space Journal'.

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