Friday, 25 September 2020

Taking over the night sky

UNTIL relatively recently in human history the night sky remained one of the last unspoilt vestiges of our natural world. From the time of Galileo to the present day, astronomical observations from Earth’s surface have led to exceptional progress in the scientific understanding of the world around us.

Now, just as we enter the third decade of the 21st Century and a dynamic new phase in space exploration and exploitation begins, some of the current capability of astronomical instrumentation from the ground is potentially being endangered by the rapid development of micro-satellite fleets in low Earth orbits (LEO).

In the interests of preserving the ability to make meaningful visual and radio ground-based observations, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) is sounding a clarion call for greater protection and international safeguards.

The IAU claims that if the deployment of mega constellations remains unchecked the view of the night sky will be increasingly impeded by artificial satellites, not only visible to the naked eye but also crossing and scarring professional and amateur time-lapse observations alike with parallel streaks at all latitudes.

SpaceX has already embarked on its ambitious Starlink project to populate the sky with some 42,000 satellites which, together with planned constellations such as those from OneWeb, Amazon and others, means there could one day be more than 50,000 small satellites encircling the Earth at different low altitudes.

These small, mass-produced satellites orbit very close to Earth with the intent to provide speedy internet connections via low-latency signals. But that proximity also makes them more visible and brighter in the night sky. 

Astronomers argue that such constellations will severely diminish our view of the universe, create more space debris and deprive humanity of an unblemished view of the night sky. If these networks come to fruition, they suggest that every square degree of the sky will eventually have a satellite crawling across it throughout the whole observing night.

As space becomes ever more commercialised the speed of such development is quickly overtaking the existing, globally agreed rules governing space activities. Mega-constellations are just one area where new rules of governance are urgently needed. Others include the exploitation of resources on the Moon and elsewhere, preserving peace and resolving disputes, and rules for everyday living in space.

Recognising the urgent need for coordinated action, the space nation Asgardia is organising a second congress in its ‘Paving the Road to Living in Space’ series. Taking place at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, in 2021 (, it will focus on discussing key aspects of space law needed to ensure the success of future space exploits.

Of course, ROOM fully supports the growth and advancement of space technologies and the ensuing benefits they bring to everyday life, business and commerce across the globe.

But it would be ironic indeed if, by exploiting LEO without due responsibility, we neglect to consider the resultant damage to scientific research and a previously unblemished part of our natural environment that deployment of such new technologies could unwittingly deliver.

The urgent question is, do we continue to rush headlong into deploying massive new orbital networks without checks and balances, and with scant regard for the heavens above - or can the global space community approach this kind of thing in a more mature and responsible manner that is fair to everyone?

This editorial by Clive Simpson was first published in the Summer 2020 issue of ROOM Space Journal


Wednesday, 19 August 2020

Time to bee friendly

IT’S amazing how much wildlife three average-sized planters on your back yard patio can deliver.

I’ve always had a soft spot for lavender; its scent is heavenly and the sight of a lavender bush in full bloom and smothered with bees is surely one to gladden the heart.

But this year I wanted to try insect-friendly thyme in one of its many guises and marjoram, the latter an aromatic herb in the mint family.

Both have proved a huge success and, as we trug through the sunny days of August, the marjoram has finally come into its own.

It is spilling over the pots in profusion and attracting all kinds of pollinating insects, including a variety of different bees and butterflies.

This morning it was rewarding to sit in the early morning sun and watch the constant stream of delicately winged visitors to these delicious flowers.

I’ve grouped a couple of the marjoram pots together along with a small pot of strawberry scented mint, with its delicate spikes of lilac-coloured flowers, which the insects equally love.

The thyme plant was at its best a few weeks before so, after its tiny flowers had finally spent themselves, I trimmed it all right back, hoping maybe for a second burst early in the autumn.

Indeed, it is already sprouting lots of new growth and looks like it will flower a second time, though probably not as profusely as its initial display.

The planters themselves have required minimal preparation and looking after, apart from a regular water on hot days and the occasional drop of liquid plant feed.

I started out with just one small plant in each pot but reckon by next spring they can all be split to at least double my tally for next year.

Friday, 26 June 2020

Johnson's satellite gamble

SHOULD the UK government be spending hundreds of millions of pounds on the part-purchase of bankrupt US satellite firm OneWeb, which it hopes to lever as a replacement for departing the EU’s Galileo system as a result of Brexit?

OneWeb, which has already had around $3 billion of investment from SoftBank, is the kind of high risk space company that has to spend vast amounts of money before being able to make any income and in an entirely new field against stiff competition.

Cash flow is a fact of life for such companies where potential returns are many years down the line. This spring OneWeb’s on-going problems, combined with the arrival of Covid-19, created a perfect storm and it was forced it to file for bankruptcy in the United States.

Since then it has been desperately hunting for a buyer with, among other groups from France and China, rival Amazon thought to have expressed interest. Intense lobbying by its officials is understood to have included the British government and its advisers.

So the UK government's plan is to invest £500 million to help rescue OneWeb as part of a wider private-sector consortium bid that would potentially see the British public holding a 20 percent stake in the company.

Under such a deal the UK would likely need OneWeb to transfer its manufacturing base from the United States to Britain. And, crucially, it would also be required to add an innovative new global positioning technology (possibly developed by the UK's 'Satellite Applications Catapult' to each of the thousands of low Earth orbit (LEO) satellites.

The government believes this would be cheaper than investing around £4 billion, as previously mooted, in developing a rival satellite navigation system to the EU's Galileo.

It should be emphasised that the UK is only unable to access the restricted, military secure areas of the EU’s Galileo satellites and this is not because of Brexit (Norway has full operational access under its Co-operation Agreement) but because the UK government has chosen not to withdraw cooperation on Galileo for ideological political reasons. The OneWeb bid is therefore couched in politics

To date all major global positioning systems – America’s GPS, Russia’s Glonass, China’s BeiDou, and Europe’s Galileo (an EU-led project that the UK helped design and build) is in a medium Earth orbit at a height of approximately 20,000 km. OneWeb’s satellites, 74 of which have already been launched, are in a low Earth orbit, just 1,200 km high.

OneWeb is working on basically the same idea as Elon Musk’s Starlink - a mega-constellation of satellites in low Earth orbit, which are used to connect people on the ground to the internet.

According to Dr Bleddyn Bowen, a space policy expert at the University of Leicester, replacing GPS for military-grade GPS systems (which need encrypted, secure signals that are precise to centimetres) is not necessarily possible on small LEO satellites like those developed by OneWeb.

He suggests that rather than being selected for the technical quality of the offering, the investment is more in line with “a nationalist agenda”.

One might argue the scheme has all the hallmarks and parallels to the triumphant exceptionalism of the hugely expensive and so far failed UK government plan during the Covid-19 crisis to go it alone and develop its own Track & Trace App, despite other technologies already existing.

The internet side of a fully developed OneWeb satellite system may also have other more dubious attractions to Dominic Cummings, the prime minister’s chief advisor and chief of the Vote Leave campaign - the potential for surreptitious data harvesting.
Given that OneWeb has arrived at its current destination by spending a very large pile of money already on its core mission, and more will be needed to make it viable, there are still very sizeable financial risks for a public investment.

OneWeb remains an unproven business and is competing against established giants, such as SpaceX, which is about to launch its latest batch of Starlink satellites. Significant technical issues will need to be overcome too, all of which will cost a lot more money.

And, of course, such satellite mega-constellations are already attracting the wrath of astronomers for their potential to hamper astronomical observations (see Traffic lights in the night sky), as well as making an as yet undetermined contribution to the growing problem of orbital debris.

Boris Johnson’s potential participation in a OneWeb bid has been the focus of both  opposition and support from the UK space industry, which had originally pinned its hopes on pursuing a lucrative Galileo-style navigation project.

One deciding factor appears to have been support from US defence officials who do not want the UK to develop a replica of the American GPS or European Galileo systems. In contrast a LEO navigation service would complement the current US system and, according to some, offer extra resilience to US allies.

Certainly, as Brexit and all its down the line ramifications gradually unfold, the government’s latest bid signals a further departure from its previous close and highly successful associations with Europe towards a potentially much more unbalanced and risky trans-Atlantic partnership.

Clive Simpson is a freelance journalist specialising in global space affairs.

Game of chicken

ON the face of it, an announcement this week by the new boss of supermarket chain Waitrose that his stores will never sell chlorinated chicken is a welcome intervention for the much hailed trade talks between the UK and US in the wake of Brexit.

James Bailey, writing in store's weekend magazine, pointed out that a million people have signed a National Farmers Union (NFU) petition calling for laws to prevent future trade deals leading to food imports that would currently be illegal to produce in the UK.

"We will never sell any Waitrose product that does not meet our own high standards," asserts Bailey. “Any regression from the standards we have pioneered for the last 30 years would be an unacceptable backwards step,” he says.

The British government’s negotiating team as well as Boris Johnson himself have already made promises that a lowering of such standards is not up negotiation. But a track record of capitulations and broken promises does not inspire confidence. Nor do some of the back room manoeuvres currently taking place to change legislation.

Last week in the independent Byline Times newspaper the freelance investigative journalist David Hencke reported on a new analysis from the House of Lords that charts an extensive and worrying power grab by the British prime minister and his government.

The Lighthouse Keeper draws it to the attention of readers because it is important for more people to be aware that the Boris Johnson government is surreptitiously using Brexit legislation and the cover of Covid-19 to hand itself significant new ‘Henry VIII’ powers that will allow it to rule over large parts of this country's affairs by decree.

Or, to put it another way more politically controversial way, the Conservative party, under its right-wing and increasingly authoritarian leadership, is now on course to dismantle Britain’s accountable parliamentary democracy step by sordid step.
To be fair, it was all in the small print of the Conservative Party’s manifesto for the December 2019 election. I referred briefly to the inherent dangers posed by page 48 of the manifesto in my pre-election blog “Johnson’s land of fake believe”. This highlighted extract illustrated below more ably illustrates what I was getting at.

So let’s put it in context. By far the most successful and memorable slogan pummelled into the British sub-conscious by the pro-Brexit campaigners and Vote Leave was, “Taking back control”. Three emotive words that cleverly annexed the EU from whatever good it may have done in the minds of voters but in reality had more sinister undertones.

Those in supporting Brexit viewed the narrative quite simply - taking away powers from the unelected European Commissioners in Brussels and giving them back to the British people. It was all about the sovereignty of the British Parliament to make laws solely for the British people.

Well, as Hencke revels in his article, a report from the House of Lords - so far pretty much ignored by all of the main stream media - suggests we are all about to discover something altogether different has been taking place.

It turns out that the little known House of Lords ‘Constitution Committee’ has done a forensic job examining every bit of legislation passed and going through Parliament to change the law after Brexit became a reality on 1 January 2020.

These are not just better known laws like the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Act 2020 but new Acts of Parliament covering agriculture, money laundering, immigration, trade, taxation, reciprocal health agreements and even the granting of road haulage licences.

“What this comprehensive analysis reveals,” writes Hencke, “is that far from Parliament getting new freedoms to introduce new laws for the British people, powers are being transferred from the European Commission to government ministers and indirectly to government advisers like Dominic Cummings.”

What is happening is that perceived rule from Brussels - so widely but incorrectly promulgated by Brexit supporters - is being replaced by Boris Johnson and Michael Gove with a very real ‘rule by decree’.

It’s encapsulated by the phrase “Henry VIII” or, in more arcane phraseology, “statutory instruments”. Essentially, these are orders allowing ministers to change the law by decree - either putting down an order which Parliament has just 90 minutes to debate or a negative order that, if MPs don’t spot it, is already law unless Parliament can retrospectively overturn it.

According to Hencke, what the peers have discovered is that new bills are littered with these draconian powers - more than three dozen in the agriculture bill alone - giving huge discretion to introduce not only rule by decree but the ability to introduce new criminal offences with unlimited fines.

“One extraordinary power, governing export and import duties, bestows on ministers huge powers - including one to change the law by ‘public notice’ avoiding informing Parliament at all. This brings us back to Tudor times when all Henry VIII had to do was to pin up a notice ordering the dissolution of the monasteries” says Hencke.

We are getting into some detail here and once might be inclined to ask, does this really matter? After all, wasn’t Boris Johnson elected on a popular vote as a chum and friend of the ordinary people?

But take the Agriculture Bill as an example. It will govern new rules and regulations if, as the US appears to be demanding in trade negotiations, the country becomes bound to import chlorinated chicken and has to amend its food labelling laws.

The Bill, in its initial form, gave ministers a Henry VIII power to change the law for the marketing of food, including what is displayed on the label on supermarket shelves.

So, if the Waitrose supermarket follows what James Bailey says it will do and refuses to sell imported chlorinated chicken, a government minister could technically change the law by decree making the actions illegal. And if Waitrose disobeyed the order it could face unlimited financial penalties.

“The Bill has since been modified a bit but MPs and peers ought to be careful that powers don’t sneak in by the back door,” advises Hencke.

And there is more. A according to peers, another more obscure Act also gives huge powers to ministers.

Their report stated: “The Taxation (Cross-border Trade) Bill involves a massive transfer of power from the House of Commons to Ministers of the Crown. Ministers are given well over 150 separate powers to make tax law for individuals and businesses. These laws made by Ministers will run to thousands of pages. The Treasury’s delegated powers memorandum, which sets out in detail all these law-making powers, alone runs to 174 pages.”

Hencke says peers were incandescent about ministers being given new powers in some circumstances to override by government decree laws passed by the Scottish Parliament as well as to interfere in already adopted EU case law so that decisions can be taken by tribunals and lower courts.

The report said: “The granting of broad ministerial powers in the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Act 2020 to determine which courts may depart from CJEU (Court of Justice of the European Union) case law and to give interpretive direction in relation to the meaning of retained EU law was - and remains - inappropriate.

“Each of these powers should remain the preserve of primary legislation. There is a significant risk that the use of this ministerial power could undermine legal certainty and exacerbate the existing difficulties for the courts when dealing with retained EU law.”

Hencke, like many others, surmises that the government is using the Covid-19 crisis as cover to introduce major changes to Britain’s unwritten constitution in order to bypass Parliament. But he doesn’t blame lobby colleagues for missing this kind of detail. “The 24/7 news agenda hardly gives them time to study a detailed House of Lords report,” he says.

All this could mean, Hencke says, that a truly post-Brexit Parliament headed by Johnson with Cummings pulling the strings, may not need to sit as often as now, just meeting occasionally to scrutinise the latest ministerial decree.

Like many others, Hencke doesn’t believe this is what the average person voting for Brexit envisaged at all. And The Lighthouse Keeper agrees.

“I don’t think the majority of people in this country want to live in a society where ministers and Downing Street have overwhelming powers to create new criminal offences by decree without being properly scrutinised by Parliament,” he concludes.

One may argue that it was clear from the outset of Johnson’s tenure as prime minister that the UK was in grave danger of losing by stealth its democratic safeguards. Were his early attempts to close parliament last October, and so walk away from scrutiny, the infant days of a de facto dictatorship?

To read David Hencke’s original article click here - Byline Times

Searching for aliens

Allen Telescope array, California, which is part of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.

SCIENTISTS and astronomers searching for aliens in other parts of the universe have released a catalogue of objects found in space that they hope could help them locate intelligent life.

Breakthrough Listen, an initiative to find signs of intelligent life in the universe, released its innovative catalogue of ‘Exotica’ this week. It contains a diverse list of objects of potential interest to astronomers searching for technosignatures, which might be a tell-tale sign of technology developed by extraterrestrial intelligence.

The catalogue collects over 700 distinct targets intended to include ‘one of everything’ in the observed universe - ranging from comets to galaxies, from mundane objects to the most rare and violent celestial phenomena.

The search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) has been pursued as a serious scientific programme, though at times sporadically, for six decades.

In the last five years, Listen has massively increased the scope of radio (as well as optical) searches, and has developed technology, deployed at giant radio telescopes on three continents, that enables coverage of an unprecedented range of frequencies at high resolution.
Is there intelligent life in the universe?
No confirmed technosignature has yet been detected and one obvious explanation is that the human race is alone in the universe. On the other hand, in such a vast cosmos it is certainly possible that astronomers have yet to look in the most likely places.

The new Exotica catalogue is the centrepiece of Listen's efforts to expand the diversity of targets and a key principle behind it is the concept of ‘survey breadth’ - the diversity of objects observed during a programme.

This should help astronomers constrain the range of potential habitats for extraterrestrial intelligence, as well as rule out the possibility that any phenomena widely considered natural are in fact artificial.

Conversely, it may identify natural events, or confounding data such as interference, that mimic the kinds of artificial signal SETI researchers are on the lookout for.

The Exotica catalogue contains four categories of astronomical object:

1) Prototypes: a list containing at least one example of every known kind of celestial object (apart from those too transient to present realistic observation targets). Planets and moons, stars at every point of their life cycle, galaxies big and small, serene star clusters and blazing quasars, and more are all included in the list.

2) Superlatives: objects with the most extreme properties. These include examples like the hottest planet, stars with unusually high or low metal content, the most distant quasar and fastest-spinning pulsar, and the densest galaxy.

3) Anomalies: enigmatic targets whose behaviour is currently not satisfactorily explained. For instance, the famous ‘Tabby's Star’ with its bizarre dimming behaviour; ‘Oumuamua’ - the interstellar object that passed near Earth in 2017; unexplained optical pulses that last mere nanoseconds; and stars with excess infrared radiation that could conceivably be explained as waste heat from alien megastructures.

4) A control sample of sources not expected to produce positive results.

Accompanying the catalogue is extensive discussion of classification of objects and a new classification system for anomalies, as well as plans for upcoming and potential observations based on this work.

"Breakthrough Listen has already greatly expanded the breadth and depth of its search," said Yuri Milner, founder of the Breakthrough Initiatives. "The publication of this catalogue is a new and significant step for the programme."

 Pete Worden, executive director of the Breakthrough Initiatives, added: "When it comes to the search for intelligent life, it's vital to have an open mind. Until we understand more about the forms another civilization and its technology could take, we should investigate all plausible targets. Cataloguing them is the first step toward that goal."

Dr Andrew Siemion, leader of the Breakthrough Listen science team at the University of California, Berkeley's SETI Research Center (BSRC), said: "Technosignature searches to date have largely focused on the search for 'life as we know it' on nearby stars - in particular those known to host planets with the potential for liquid water on their surfaces.

“The expanded search capabilities that Breakthrough Listen has made possible allow us to consider a much wider range of possible technology-laden environments.”

The new object list is the first in recent times that aims to span the entire breadth of astrophysics, from distant galaxies to objects in our own solar system. The Listen team has developed it conceptually, compiled it and shared it with the astronomical community in the hope that it can guide future surveys - whether studying life beyond Earth or natural astrophysics - and serve as a general reference work for the field.

Breakthrough Listen is a scientific programme in search for evidence of technological life in the universe. It aims to survey one million nearby stars, the entire galactic plane and 100 nearby galaxies at a wide range of radio and optical bands.

The Breakthrough Initiatives, a suite of scientific and technological programmes, were created by Yuri Milner to investigate life in the universe. Milner, an Israeli-Russian entrepreneur, venture capitalist and physicist, is also the founder of DST Global, a leading technology investor which boasts a portfolio that includes some of the world's most prominent internet companies.

This article by Clive Simpson was first published as a news item on the ROOM Space Journal website on 26 June 2020.