Saturday, 22 September 2018

Brexit's climate of change

Photo: Clive Simpson

SO FAR this year our natural world has delivered any number of examples of what future anthropogenic climate change might bring - and even now, in late September, we have recently witnessed two record-breaking hurricanes wreaking havoc on different sides of the globe.
Extremes are the story of our weather reporting and forecasting these days, yet mainstream media hardly dares make the connection that we are living through the first, potentially deadly consequences of climate change.

Global warming knocks urgently at everyone’s door but in the UK we look inward, consumed by a delusion born of self-interest. This is Brexit - and the UK’s impending annexation from Europe is the political equivalent of climate change.

To mention both climate change and Brexit in the same sentence is an interesting dichotomy in itself because it is rare to draw comparisons between such disparate things as political ideologies and what might loosely be described as a ‘force of nature’. One could argue, of course, that each is a self-inflicted catastrophe that is wholly, or at least partly, avoidable.

Another singular conclusion relating to each also encapsulates the point. Namely, it seems likely that the end results of both are going to be far worse than anyone is properly admitting, and the effects unless we change course - globally in the case of climate change - will be felt not for just a few years but for generations.

For the UK, Brexit is a fundamentally flawed exercise. It was never really about what was good for the country but what served the self-interests of vocal and fanatical political factions. At every turn, it seeks, without reason or rational argument, to undermine the values on which this country was built.

“Vanity of vanities, all is vanity,” cried King Solomon at the beginning of the book of Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament. History teaches us that it is vanity and individualism, as opposed to pursuing the greater or common good, that has mostly brought great countries to their knees and destroyed mighty civilisations.

We now know there was never to be a tangible Brexit dividend, and every day it seems clearer the country is being held ransom, not by scapegoat immigrants or even sound political thinking but by lies and untruths disguised as vacuous phrases and innocuous sound bites.

"One day Alice came to a fork in the road and saw a Cheshire cat in a tree," wrote Lewis Carrol in Alice in Wonderland. “Which road do I take?” she asked. “Where do you want to go?” was his response. “I don't know,” Alice answered. “Then,” said the cat, “it doesn't matter.”

But it does matter because without any kind of realistic, future-looking vision ‘the people perish’, to paraphrase a quotation from the book of Proverbs (29:18). 

The northern hemisphere heat extremes of summer 2018 maybe have already been largely forgotten as we go about our everyday business. We continue to ignore the big picture of climate change at our future peril. Likewise with Brexit.

Ultimately there is no third way and, despite the protestations of a prime minister and leader of the opposition both in dogmatic denial, the choice is simple - a hard, chaotic Brexit or remain a member of the EU.

Two years on from that awkward, ill-defined referendum we still wander indecisively, a country lost and disorientated in some crazy political paralysis. We do still have choices but time is running short.

As a people, a country, we can hold up the torch of enlightenment and hope - just as we once did. Or we can cower in the shadows, weakened by ignorance and fear, and retreat alone into the dark of night.

Over two long years, Theresa May and her government’s repeated attempts at 'negotiations' have utterly failed the nation. Her bid to offload responsibility to the EU is truly embarrassing, a vain effort to shift the blame for laying waste a country she purports to love.

Often in times of impasse, difficulty or strife we turn to literature for solace, advice or even prophetic wisdom. Maybe also to discover words of honesty and hope that politicians, so bound by their short-term profanity, are afraid to utter.

The great American poet Robert Frost might therefore be relied upon in this instance to sum things up nicely. My appropriately amended (with apologies) version of his poem ‘Fire and Ice’ somehow strikes a new resonance, covering as it does both natural and political boundaries in a few short lines:

“Some say our world will end in fire, some say ice. But from what I've tasted of desire I hold with those who favour fire.

“But if I had to perish twice I think I know enough of hate to say that for destruction ‘Brexit’ is also great and will surely suffice."

Sunday, 15 July 2018

Lift-off for Scotland

The wild and unspoilt north of Scotland - I see no rockets!

SCOTLAND'S A’Mhoine peninsular is one of the most beautiful and remote spots left in the UK. It’s in Sutherland at the very top of mainland Scotland and you’ll be forgiven if you’ve never heard of it.

I visited the area one Easter. It was some long drive from ‘civilisation’ along deserted and desolate minor roads skirted by the most breath-taking mountain and coastal scenery imaginable.

More than 100 miles north of Inverness, we pitched a couple of tents for the night on a pristine, white-sanded beach at Scourie. It was just us, the waves and the wildlife - and a crystal clear dark sky.

The next day we continued another 20 miles or so north to Durness, a small civil parish in the north-west the Scottish Highlands. This isn't the most north westerly point in mainland Scotland but it is certainly the most north westerly village.

It marks the point at which the main coast road from Scourie turns right and heads south east to Thurso via Tongue and through the A'Mhoine peninsular.

Durness is one of the few remaining places of any size in mainland Scotland that you can only access by single track road. The white lines cease some 14 miles south on the A838, and the road east along the north coast of Scotland to Tongue and Thurso has many single track stretches.

The multi-billion pound aerospace industry's high-tech Farnborough International Airshow might then seem a ‘million miles’ away but this is where business secretary Greg Clark officially announced on Monday (16 July) that Scotland is to host a new UK launch base on the A’Mhoine peninsular .

The UK government is making £2.5 million available to Highlands and Islands Enterprise, the Scottish government's economic and community development agency to “develop a vertical launch site in Sutherland”.

And according to Clarke’s statement it “could see lift-off from the early 2020s and create hundreds of jobs. It will use innovative rocket technology to pave the way for a world-leading spaceflight market in Britain”.

Really, one might ask? Of course, the UK’s tabloid press websites couldn’t wait for the embargoed countdown to pass (10.30 pm on 15 July) and were fast off the mark with flights of fancy.

“The spaceport will host launches of satellites and rockets into outer space before eventually including commercial flights which will venture outside our atmosphere,” wrote Mark Hodge in The Sun.               

SNP (Scottish National Party) MP Philippa Whitford seemed to have a better grasp of things when quoted in The Mirror. She said, “launches are currently carried out from Kazakhstan,” giving the distinct impression to the unitiated that Brits might be lining up to compete directly with the Russian launch site.

“Easy launch access from Scotland would benefit the commercial satellite industry right across the UK,”  added Whitford.

Well indeed it might but let’s be honest the A'Mhoine peninsular is not going to be anything like the launch facilities in Kazakhstan, or French Guiana (Europe’s rocket launch site), or NASA’s Florida for that matter.

An artist's impression of the proposed launch site.

Like much of recent government policy, the spaceport announcement is definutely a high-profile attention-grabber designed to make the country feel that in a post-Brexit world it will recapture something of the pioneering spirit.

However welcome the idea, it’s short on detail, content and, above all, finance. I’m guessing that the £250 million would be barely enough to get planning permission through - and the rest will have to come from private funding.

One pathway to a British launch site might lie with the likes of Skyrora, a startup launcher business with serious private funding and it’s headquarters in Scotland.

"As a launch company based in Edinburgh it's very exciting for us that, finally, the UK's first vertical spaceport has been given the green light to be built in Scotland,” business development director Daniel Smith told me.

A consortium led by American aerospace giant Lockheed Martin might also become one of the partners. It could bring a version of the Electron rocket to Scotland which it currently is starting to fly out of New Zealand.

Greg Clarke’s ambitious statement that we “could see lift-off from the early 2020s and create hundreds of jobs” may seem overly simplistic given the hoops hat still have to be jumped through.

But perhaps we should keep things in perspective? Despite the tabloid hype we’re not, at least for the time being, talking about blasting people into space - merely a new breed of satellite known as CubeSats, which are roughly the size as a loaf of bread and can be hurled into orbit on top of a giant firework.

The countdown clock is already ticking on a lucrative commercial market for launching the new generation of mini satellites and time is short for the UK if it wants to capture a significant share of the nascent small launch market.

Regional authorities, rocket operators and the government are going to have to move fast if they want to avoid the opportunities being snapped up other countries. Come on Scotland, you can do it!

See my news item too - Rockets for Scotland

Tuesday, 15 May 2018

Top banana

WHEN it comes to one of our most popular fruits the UK’s major supermarkets have presided over a race to the bottom for the beleaguered banana industry.

British supermarkets, led by discounters Aldi and Lidl, have for many years used bananas and milk as huge loss leaders - and in the process largely put all but the biggest producers of both out of business.

Supermarket buying power and unfair trading practices, which have driven down the prices they pay to tropical fruit suppliers, has had a negative impact on earnings and working conditions for banana plantation workers. Or, in the case of small-scale producers, such as those in the Caribbean’s Windward Isles, threatened their very survival.

The recently proposed merger between UK supermarket giants ASDA (Walmart) and Sainsbury's raises the prospect of an ever more powerful buyer able to exert even more pressure on prices by squeezing suppliers even further.

Sainsbury's has already said the merger could lead to price cuts in their stores of "around 10 per cent on many of the products customers buy regularly" - and in the case of bananas that would be 3p off the current price per kilo, or 12p from the cost of a pack of eight Fairtrade bananas.

For too long, low prices for bananas in our supermarkets have been synonymous with squeezing suppliers. The prospective merger will therefore is not necessarily good news to already struggling suppliers of bananas and other tropical fruits to the UK market.

Jacqui Mackay, national co-ordinator of Norwich-based Banana Link said: "Banana Link has worked constructively with Sainsbury's and ASDA for many years, both individually and through the World Banana Forum, to support their ethical buying practices.

“We hope that the merged retailer will take a lead in ethical sourcing by ensuring that the prices it pays cover its suppliers' costs of sustainable production and that any projected price cuts are not be made at the detriment of tropical fruit workers and small-scale farmers that produce our favourite fruit.”

Is there an upside? Sainsbury's and ASDA both have demonstrable commitments to ethical sourcing of bananas and all of Sainsbury's bananas carry the Fairtrade label, which ensures fair minimum prices for suppliers which cover the costs of sustainable production.

Both are members - along with Banana Link - of the World Banana Forum, which brings together stakeholders in the global banana supply chain to work towards consensus on best practices for sustainable production and trade.

The increased buying power and greater economies of scale of the merged retailer could provide an opportunity for greater commitment to the ethical sourcing of tropical fruit.

NFU Scotland Chief Executive Scott Walker said: “There is an opportunity here for potentially the biggest player in the UK's retail sector to put in place a system of responsible sourcing and to end the spectre of Unfair Trading Practices by supermarkets.”

A recent proposal by the European Commission for legislation on unfair trading practices in global food supply chains might be welcome news. By protecting small and medium-sized food suppliers against abusive practices of large buyers, it aims to address insecurity among supermarket suppliers, which directly impacts the most vulnerable people in the supply chain.

Banana Link is a small not-for-profit co-operative, founded in 1996, which campaigns for a socially just, environmentally sound and economically viable banana industry. It works in close partnership with Latin American banana workers trade unions, small farmers in the Caribbean and civil society organisations in Europe and the US.

Monday, 9 April 2018

Dazzled by LEDs

DO you still enjoy driving at night? Well, if you don’t and - apart from the ever-increasing traffic volumes - there might be another, initially less obvious, reason.

Last week Public Health England warned that high levels of blue light in LED street lighting can be uncomfortable and are known to cause retina damage. The same goes for the new generation of ultra bright LED vehicle headlights.

The executive agency of the UK govrnment's Department of Health also suggests that daylight-running lights on cars can lead to drivers being dazzled by oncoming vehicles with the risk that they may not see hazards until too late’ - a problem that can be exacerbated by misty conditions and fog.

Right across the UK - and with little heed to the mounting medical evidence against them - LED street lights have been used to replace older forms of street lighting as they are much cheaper to run, easier to control and can have less general light dispersal.

But all this comes at a price and John O’Hagan of Public Health England is now warning that councils and vehicle manufacturers should be considering social and health factors as well as their budgets.

Writing in the chief medical officer’s annual report, he says that if local authorities have been replacing mercury and sodium street lights with LEDs purely on the basis of energy efficiency and cost it is possible to end up with installations that may not be “fit for purpose”.

“Some streetlight luminaires have LED sources that can be seen physically projecting below the luminaire, becoming a glare source or light pollution,” explains. “The light spectrum may also be enriched in the blue, which may be beneficial for keeping drivers alert will be uncomfortable for many people. High levels of blue light are known to cause damage to the retina in the eye.”

O’Hagan acknowledges that LEDs can be provided in a range of colour temperatures and that “warmer colours” are more appropriate for populated areas.

Research assessed by Public Health England and others also raises concern about the variable illuminance of LED light sources which, at the extreme, switch on and off 100 times per second.

“In such circumstances rotating machinery, which could include the blades on a food mixer, may appear to be stationary if the rotation rate matches the modulation rate or is a multiple of it,” suggests O’Hagan.

This frequency can also result in headaches, migraines and feelings of malaise in those sensitive to light modulation.

As blue-rich white light continues to spread across the country like wildfire pollution, a considered national lighting policy is urgently needed is to minimise harmful consequences for humans and wildlife.

Street lights and vehicle lights with a far too high CCT (Correlated Colour Temperature) values (ie, well above 3000 Kelvin) are becoming commonplace.

Public Health England and the Campaign for Rural England are now among the growing number of international organisations calling for lower CCT levels and warmer colour temperatures to help prevent glare, discomfort and potential medical problems in humans, as well as reducing adverse affects to wildlife.

Saturday, 31 March 2018

Space: Brexit's new frontier

Control centre for the EU's Galileo satellite navigation system.

CHINA'S out of control space station, which is set to come crashing out of orbit this weekend, offers an alarming metaphor for the possible trajectory of Britain’s multi-billion-pound space industry after Brexit.

The sector, which is worth £14 billion a year and estimated to contribute £250 billion to the wider economy, was almost universally dismayed by the result of the referendum. As Richard Peckham, head of trade organisation Ukspace and director of strategy for Airbus Defence & Space, put it: “I don’t think I’ve met anybody in the space industry or academia who wants Brexit.”

Along with broader warnings, about how the sector will cope with the likely impact on the cross-border movement of goods, services, data and people, on which it relies, there have also been specific and immediate threats to the sector. This includes uncertainty over the UK’s continued participation in the EU’s Galileo navigation and Copernicus Earth observation programmes, as well others such as Govsatcom (which deals with communications), IRIS (air traffic management) and SSA/SST (space debris).

Peckham, and others in the sector, have said that the impact of Brexit has already been felt, with foreign customers and suppliers making contingency plans to exclude British firms, as a precaution, in case UK companies become ineligible for future contracts.

His advice to the government has been not to approach negotiations with the EU in an “adversarial manner”, because other countries might see this as an opportunity to take work from the UK, while UKspace also outlined five things it wanted from negotiations with the EU: to retain full access to EU space programmes; to avoid UK industry being marginalised; to retain access to and influence in the collaborative R&D programmes run by the EU; to maintain access to the EU pool of skilled labour; and to keep frictionless access to the EU single market without burdensome customs and administration.

There is no evidence that ministers have been listening to these pleas, but space has certainly been elevated to the higher echelons of government this week, after it was revealed the European Commission had written to the UK to explain that it would be inappropriate to divulge highly sensitive information to a departing member state about post-2019 contracts for the secure element of its Galileo satellite navigation system.

“If the commission shared this information with the UK (which will become a third country) it would irretrievably compromise the integrity of certain elements of these systems for many years after the withdrawal of the UK,” the letter said.

It suggests Britain’s space industry will be locked out of the programme, with its companies frozen out of the next round of long-term contracts relating to the system – which are expected to be awarded in June.

Basic navigation services from the Galileo satellites are available for all, but use of the encrypted, robust Public Regulated Service (PRS) is designed for government-authorised users – such as the military, fire brigades and the police – and is restricted to those inside the EU.

The row suggests that every fear the industry has may be realised. The sector is so closely entwined with Europe that after the UK leaves the EU, it risks being lost in space.

This is not to say that ‘Europe’s’ space ambitions equate to the EU’s, of course. The European Space Agency (ESA) is a separate body, after all, and not part of the EU. Norway and Switzerland are members of the ESA, for example, but not members of the EU. And not all of the EU’s 28 members are members of ESA.

But the EU itself is a major contributor to ESA, principally for the Galileo global navigation satellite system (GNSS), which began operations in December 2016, and the Copernicus Earth observation programmes, and it is likely to become ever more involved in this field.

Airbus UK and other British space companies believe their expertise puts them in a strong position to win more Copernicus business and there will be dozens of new lucrative Copernicus contracts up for grabs in the next two to three years. But the latest row over involvement in Galileo might indicate otherwise.

The UK’s space industry, which provides jobs for around 40,000 people, has been doing well, buoyed by its previous close involvement in European space programmes, and is currently showing growth of around 7% a year. The sector’s success has helped prompt the Space Industry Act 2018, which received Royal assent earlier this month and is aimed at providing a regulatory framework for the commercial launch of satellites from UK spaceports.

Though receiving much publicity this is perhaps more a flight of fancy than anything grounded in near-term reality, and should not be seen as something that would provide anything like an alternative to ESA membership. 

Plans for commercial spaceflight launches from UK spaceports might become more viable in the future with cheaper launch systems, including some of the horizontal launch systems with which entrepreneurial UK space businesses are involved. On the other hand, several of the proposed spaceport locations are in Scotland, which might be affected if the country, which voted to remain in the EU, had a further independence referendum and decided to leave the UK in order to seek membership of the EU.

So what of the future of the UK space programme? As ESA and the EU are separate organisations, the UK will most likely continue with ESA membership as the preferred option for the foreseeable future. Although it is possible that the UK might look for other models, including a home-grown space programme, it is highly unlikely that Britain alone could undertake the breadth of activities in space science and technology that has been possible as a member of the ESA, including human spaceflight.

Stormy waters lie ahead for any organisation linked to Europe and the knock-on effects of Brexit for one of the UK’s most buoyant and future-looking industries and the thousands of people it employs couldn’t be more profound.    

This article by Clive Simpson, a freelance journalist and managing editor of ROOM - The Space Journal, first appeared in The New European newspaper (Easter edition, 28 March -11 April). 

Tuesday, 20 March 2018

Return of the Wren

Photo: Clive Simpson

WE'VE arrived at the equinox when the hours of light and dark are the same and it looks like spring might finally be on the way.

Over the short, cold days of winter we’d been diligently feeding our garden visitors - probably a dozen different types of bird each day - all with their own characteristics.

One feathered friend that didn’t visit the feeders was a charming little wren who was content with hoping around the hanging basket and tubs near our window, feeding no doubt on the insects living there.

The wren is one of Britain's most delicate birds, though size does not diminish its claim to be one of the most vocal. Wrens love thickets, hedges, undergrowth and shrubberies. Anything thick, dense and small.

But then came along the ‘beast from the east’ in early March, as the winter blast was labelled in the media and by gleeful weather forecasters.

It as like the door of the Arctic had been left ajar, allowing the cold air to pour out and sweep from the east across ill-prepared little Britain.

The regular birds were aligned on the garden fence and in the bare trees each morning as we pulled back the curtains on the snowy garden.

They were waiting in the bitter cold for their supply of seeds and bread crumbs, vitally important to keep them alive in such conditions.

In all this harsh winter weather our wren was nowhere to be seen, its supply of inspects rudely curtailed by the deep snow and sub-zero temperatures.

How could such a delicate bird - the smallest and lightest of British birds - survive these conditions?

Indeed, for two weeks after the snows and cold had abated we saw no sign of our tiny friend, which we judged must have perished in the hard conditions.
But then, three weeks later and the day of the vernal equinox, there was a sudden, brief flicker of movement on the patio beneath the door. An old wizened leaf caught in the breeze perhaps?

No, our wren was miraculously back, busily investigating its local territory and feasting on insects among the brightly coloured pansy flowers, themselves revived by the warming spring sunshine.

Wednesday, 31 January 2018

Here comes the sun

Photo: Clive Simpson

THE vibrant colour and noise of summer are absent on this visceral, unkind day at the English seaside.

It started with unrequited optimism, a slip of sunshine at dawn which quickly retreated into murky fog and cold, a typically dour and miserly January day enveloped in clinging mist.

There is no wind, just chill, and the grey sea is eerily serene and flat for the time of year, merging without definition into the distant grey shoreline.

We are standing on a narrow, exposed north-facing balcony of the the Rocket House Cafe, an oddly named building whose shape and design is more maritime than space launch pad.

A rusty tractor hauls two small fishing boats off the beach just below us onto a steep jetty. They are safe now, well above the concrete sea wall which snakes away in gritty grey tones behind them.

It carries the eye towards Cromer’s famous seaside pier with its quaint, rusty-roofed theatre in front of a modern, wood constructed lifeboat house which seems to hang on the very edge of the North Sea.

Warmth and light from inside the busy cafe beckon. The chatter is comforting and masks the bleakness of a seaside town in winter, as we hold closely our memories of summer and look forward to sunny days.

Rocket House Cafe

Photo: Clive Simpson

Monday, 22 January 2018

Did we fly to the Moon too soon?

UNBELIEVABLY it has been almost a half century since Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin bounced across the lunar landscape for the first time.

Certainly, in terms of human exploration, project Apollo was perceived as a stepping stone to greater things rather than marking a pinnacle of human achievement.       

But the sudden cancellation of the final three missions - despite the fact that the hardware for each had already been built - ably illustrates the financial and political difficulties of sustaining space exploration. Apollo 20 was shelved in January 1970. Eight months later, Apollo 18 and Apollo 19 were also cancelled, making Apollo 17, all the way back in December 1972, the final and most recent human mission to the Moon.

Five decades on and the United States, Europe, Russia, China, Japan and India, along with a handful of private entrepreneurs and firms, all harbour new lunar exploration ambitions.

In October 2017, US Vice-President Mike Pence announced a significant re-direction for NASA - a new road map to create a sustained human presence on the M oon’s surface. It’s a big change for the agency which, for the past decade, has been heading, somewhat tentatively, for a future of deep space exploration and taking humans to Mars.

But words are not enough and to become reality ambitious programmes require ambitious sums of money, along with sustained long-term political commitment.           

Fortunately, NASA’s rapidly maturing new hardware for deep space missions can also be easily re-purposed to take us back to the Moon.

Its giant rocket - known prosaically as the ‘Space Launch System’ (SLS) - and a crew capsule called Orion designed to carry people into deep space, can easily become the mainstay of future lunar missions.               

A so-called cislunar architecture and an associated economy that supports or is part of a return to the Moon offers many opportunities.

Fresh political direction and some of the essential hardware may almost be in place but establishing a sustained presence on the Moon is also going to require the creation of a lunar lander, habitats, life support systems and more.

Long-term funding (at one point, NASA estimated a return to the Moon would cost upwards of US $100 billion) and time (particularly in a political context) are rare commodities in our modern world.

To succeed, space exploration projects still need to be challenging and inspirational, perhaps with a nod towards commercialism.

They must also cover the bases of meaningful international partnerships and private sector
participation, and include the less glamorous aspects of building components, delivering cargo and providing ‘multi-layered’ services.   

Today, the nature of leadership in space is very different to the politically driven aspirations of the 1960s and 1970s. Back then it was more about doing things that no other country could do - and being there first.

Ten years after Apollo 11, the science writer and science fiction author Arthur C Clarke suggested that space travel might be “a technological mutation that should not really have arrived until the 21st century”.

If mankind was not really ready to go to the Moon in the late 1960s and the early 1970s then perhaps now is exactly the right time.

This article was first written by Clive Simpson as the Editorial in the Winter2017/18 edition of ROOM - The Space Journal for which Clive Simpson is also the Managing Editor. For online subscriptions please go to: