Saturday, 31 December 2011

Kathmandu to Lukla

Awoken at 0545 am after a restless, noisy night. Breakfast in the hotel 30 minutes later followed by some last minute packing. By 7 am we were heading in a rickety old coach towards Kathmandu’s national airport. Despite the hour the streets were already chaotic.

At the airport we entered through ‘local' departures. It was a hurly burly, do-it-yourself kind of check in but somehow it seemed to work.

There were already some eight planes awaiting as we were bused out to a twin engined Otter operated by Yeti airways. These planes can make four or five trips a day to somewhere like Lukla, some 30 to 40 minutes of spectacular flying time away.

Localised fog out on the runway meant everything was grounded until the sun was properly up to burn away the early morning mist. We hung around outside the plane with the chance to closely examine what looked like a flying relic of days gone by. Hopefully good enough for one more trip into the mountains.

Thought it’s not entirely logical, I feel thankful that we have two pilots as we career down the runway and buzz up into the air away from Kathmandu.

It’s a tight fit for 16 people and all the trekking gear for 10 days and we have an intimate view of the two pilots at the front. Soon we are flying over hilly farmland at about 10,000 feet. To the left there are distant towering mountain ridges.

As we can see through the cockpit window the tiny mountainside landing strip comes into view. It has to be a pinpoint touchdown here as the runway is short and ends in a wall of mountainside. No second chances as the pilots line up for what must be one of the most exciting landing strips in the world.  It is a unique and truly memorable flight.

The mountainside settlement of Lukla, gateway to Everest, is bustling with people and small aeroplanes and even a couple of helicopters. No sooner has our plane turned into the tiny parking area and another is buzzing down the runway to leap into oblivion over the mountain edge. Bags and people are unloaded immediately.

The airstrip at bustling Lukla was built by Sir Edmund Hillary and his friends to service the Everest region when he began his work of building schools and hospitals for the Sherpa people.

We are immediately impressed by the scale of the huge peaks that surround the settlement, as we greet our Sherpa team and take time loading gear with the porters and yaks.

Our party sets off from Lukla at about 11 o’clock, down from the landing strip through a narrow cobbled street. Tiny shops spill onto the walkway and there is the smell of wood fires with smoke rising into the still air.

We snake downhill on a broad and well-marked rocky trail towards the Dudh Kosi, a raging river that flows from the highest peaks. At 10,000 feet the air is already thinning and cool, and you can taste the mountains with every breath as - it is both intoxicating and exhilarating.

Friday, 30 December 2011

Flight to Kathmandu

Our flight from London to Kathmandu seemed dark. By the time we flew into the bright lights of Bahrain for a 1.5 hour stop-over it was early evening. Then it was on to Abu Dhabi in the twilight hours. A two hours delay in a dome-shaped terminal, with little to do in the middle of the night.

We were travelling Go Air, an Arab-based airline which serves curry flavoured meals whatever the time of day. Tasty, but lamb curry at 3 am in the morning local time was a big adjustment and just the first cultural challenge for a momentous trip ahead.

There was a delay on our morning flight into Kathmandu international airport as a bank of fog formed on one end of the sloping runway. Our pilot circled for 30 minutes then went into land - but just 30 seconds or so before touchdown, as dropping into the cloud tops, he pulled out in a steep climb, up and out and away.

We flew on to Dakar where we landed for refuelling. Just over an hour each way and about 45 minutes on the ground before returning to Kathmandu. It had been a long ‘day’ since leaving London Heathrow but at last we had arrived.

Stepping off a plane into Kathmandu is an exhilarating shock - the sights, sounds and smells quickly lead to sensory overload after the confines of several aeroplanes.

Buzzing around the crazy traffic in a local bus, trundling down the narrow winding streets of the old town in a rickshaw, marvelling at Durbar Square or dodging the tiger balm sellers and trekking touts in Thamel - it is an intoxicating, amazing and exhausting place.

As the largest (and pretty much the only) city in the country, Kathmandu also feels like another developing-world city rushing into a modern era of concrete and traffic pollution.

But a walk in the back streets and the Nepali capital's amazing cultural and artistic heritage reveals itself in hidden temples overflowing with marigolds, courtyards full of drying chillis and rice, and tiny hobbit-sized workshops.

At an altitude of 1336 metres above sea level, Kathmandu is an exotic and fascinating showcase of rich culture, art and tradition - and for us, of course, an important gateway to the Himalayas.

Late afternoon we arrived at Hotel Shanker, a stunning former royal palace full of character and charm. The weather was warm and sunny, if a little bit muggy.

Beautiful manicured gardens with potted plants, many of them Marigolds. We were all given garlands of Marigolds on alighting bus from the airport, a traditional form of Nepalese welcome. Darkness had descended by 6 pm.

Our hotel for the night had a restaurant called Kailash restaurant and two bars - the Kunti Bar and the One Eyed Bar. The former boasted a traditional setting of intricate wood carving and lattice windows.

At 21:50 local time we had a buffet meal in hotel dining room. Pick up remaining gear and back to room for bed to grab as much sleep as we could. The mountains of our dreams beckoned.

Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Land of great cathedrals

The ‘circus’ at Everest Basecamp was non-existent on this bright and sunny morning in early November in the heart of the Himalayas. The still air was crisp and cool, and the midday sun pierced the iridescent sky, rays of warmth feeling good on the face.

No tents, no people, no cameras – the buzz of expedition fever had dissipated along with the changing weather. Just a few tattered prayer flags every now and then, breaking the ground-level monotony of grey rock and Khumbu ice. You can’t even glimpse the summit of Everest from this fabled ‘launchpad’, and so I wondered...

In the days approaching Basecamp we had learnt from other trekkers along the way that it was now ‘empty’, the last and unsuccessful summit expedition of the year having returned to Spain three weeks earlier.

For a trek that was billed ‘Everest Basecamp’ it was now something of a dilemma – it had been our big chance to fleetingly rub shoulders with those taking on the highest mountain on Earth. But the circus and its paraphernalia had left town.

Several hours back from Basecamp along a tortuous, zig zag route of rock and ice is the remote settlement of Gorak Shep, in the shadow of Nuptse. Here the trappings of Everest expeditions past and to come can be seen – neatly stacked aluminium ladders lashed behind huts for self-keeping and a compound of empty ‘gas’ bottles.

But we jump ahead. Back in September, the Lighthouse Keeper asked ‘How high is Everest?’ and promised to enliven the dark winter nights by marking the tenth anniversary a first visit to Nepal with a retrospective blog, re-living the journey in words and pictures – from the excitement and heat of Kathmandu to the extreme cold and wilderness of the lower reaches of Everest.

So, in the words of John Ruskin, our journey to these ‘great cathedrals of the earth, with their gates of rock, pavements of cloud, choirs of stream and stone, altars of snow, and vaults of purple traversed by the continual stars’, starts here.

Monday, 28 November 2011

Here comes the sun

It went largely unreported by the general media but late into the night of 22 November the UK's Daylight Saving Bill cleared another hurdle.

Parliament granted what's called a 'money resolution', procedural geekery but crucial for it to move ahead, which means it is now with a committee of MPs to thrash out the fine details over the coming weeks.

Business minister Mark Prisk stated the Government will support the bill - proposed by Conservative MP Rebecca Harris - aimed at moving Britain's clocks forward by an hour all year round so long as amendments to the legislation are agreed.

Evidence for the positive effects of shifting the clocks forward by an hour has mounted in recent years, with the latest academic research showing that the change could save over 80 lives and at least half a million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions every year.

Knock-on benefits of reduced electricity bills, improved health and a boost for the leisure and tourism sector mean that lighter evenings now have a wider range of supporters than ever.

From tourism trade bodies to road safety campaigners, and from sporting organisations to serving government ministers, a new and diverse movement for lighter evenings is growing day by day.

Meanwhile opposition to the change is melting. Today, the old arguments about milkmen and postal workers needing early-morning sunlight to carry out deliveries look exactly like what they are – arguments from the 1970s.

The National Farmers Union, which had been a vocal critic of earlier proposals, recently announced that the reasons for farmers' past opposition to advancing the clocks had been ‘lost in history'.

With the next big Parliamentary vote just around the corner, the 10:10 Lighter Later campaign I stepping up its efforts to argument right across the UK by funding coalition meetings in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Its £5,000 fund target for the next phase was surpassed in just a few days and Lighter Later is now hoping to raise £7,500 to support its lobbying efforts.

Daniel Vockins, 10:10's campaign manager, said: "This is an idea whose time has come. All we need now is one big push from the British public.

"We commissioned research into a whole host of policy measures through which government could rapidly and painlessly reduce UK emissions. Reforming daylight savings hours came out top because of its substantial energy savings and a whole host of co-benefits."

Friday, 18 November 2011

Unfrozen planet

Whilst much of the world is in the grip of a financial, economic and industrial crisis, the remorseless growth of the greenhouse gases that cause global warming continues unchecked.

New figures on global carbon dioxide emissions for 2010 from the US Department of Energy make sobering, not to say chilling, reading.

The headline figure is that world carbon dioxide jumped by its largest ever amount in a single year, from 31.6 to 33.5 billion tons. However, close scrutiny of the data from the Oak Ridge National Laboratory reveals other patterns that are just as disturbing.

The key one is the explosive and seemingly unstoppable growth in emissions from China, which leapt by 9.3 per cent over the year to 8.15 billion tons of carbon dioxide. The Chinese are now producing 24.3 per cent of global carbon emissions and have firmly overtaken the US the role of the world's biggest polluter.

Polar scientists also warned this month that Earth's frozen ‘cryosphere’ - from the Arctic Sea in the north to the massive Antarctic ice shelves in the south - is showing unequivocal signs of climate change as global warming accelerates the melting of the planet's coldest regions.

A rapid loss of ice is clear from the records kept by military submarines, from land measurements taken over many decades and by satellite observations from space. It can be seen on the ice sheets of Greenland, the glaciers of mountain ranges from the Andes to the Himalayas, and the vast ice shelves that stretch out into the sea from the Antarctic continent.

The effect of the melting cryosphere will be felt by rapidly rising sea levels that threaten to flood coastal cities and low-lying nations, changes to the circulation of ocean currents such as the Gulf Stream, and possible alterations to the weather patterns that influence more southerly regions of the northern hemisphere.

One of the greatest threats is the melting of the permafrost regions of the northern hemisphere which could release vast quantities of methane gas from frozen deposits stored underground for many thousands of years. Scientists are already seeing an increase in methane concentrations in the atmosphere that could be the result of melting permafrost.

"The melting of the cryosphere is such a clear, visibly graphic signal of climate change. Almost every aspect is changing and, if you take the global average, it is all in one direction," said Prof David Vaughan, a geologist at the British Antarctic Survey based in Cambridge, England.

One of the clearest signals of climate change is the rapid loss of floating sea ice in the Arctic, which has been monitored by satellites since the late 1970s and by nuclear submarines since the beginning of the cold war, according to Prof Peter Wadhams of Cambridge University.

Sea ice is retreating faster and further than at any time on record and this year it probably reached an all-time record minimum in terms of volume and a close second in terms of surface area. On current projections, if the current rate of loss continues, there could be virtually no September sea ice as early as 2015, Prof Wadhams said.

The illustration below, based on NASA satellite data, shows how minimum sea ice extent for 2011, reached on 9 September, declined to a level far smaller than the 30-year average (in yellow) and opened up Northwest Passage shipping lanes (in red).

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Italian hospitality

While the politicians of Rome were combusting, if not actually burning, this week, the medieval town of Lucca in the heart of Tuscany was a pretence of calm and polite political dialogue.

In the heart of the walled town, the ornately decorated Palazzo Ducaleis - adorned inside with monumental paintings and wall murals - was the focus for a very different kind of political forum, the Third International Conference on Space Exploration.

Representatives from 28 countries, the European Commission and the European Space Agency (ESA) met for what was described as the first high-level ‘international space exploration platform', which in itself sounds rather like it could be an orbiting satellite.

The organisers shipped in 15 or so journalists from the far reaches of Europe - including Poland, Latvia, Finland and other seemingly unlikely space-faring nations - to help get the message out.

For the rookie space writers among them you could say news was a bit thin on the ground because this wasn't a conference about bold new space projects but more of an attempt to create a new forum where the politics of future space endeavours can be discussed and agreed upon - with the aim of bringing about greater degrees of international cooperation in the future.

Apart from the noticeable absence of anyone from India, all the major space-faring nations - and many who have aspirations in that area but don't really do much at present - were represented at various levels of authority.

Britain's space minister David Willetts, for example, apologised for not being in Lucca in person through his representative Keith Mason.

His opening gambit described the UK as being "well-positioned and very interested" in developing nuclear technology for powering future exploration spacecraft.

Mason also emphasised that lowering the cost of access to Earth orbit was becoming increasingly important.

"We are backing technology to reduce this cost by an order of maginutude," he said, hinting at but not exactly naming the Reaction Engines' Skylon spaceplane project.

"We see exploration as means of stimulating economic advance and developing wider international cooperation, broadening and expanding human horizons."

The conference went on to endorse the ‘Lucca Declaration' and recognise the benefit of a continuing dialogue on future space exploration ‘to help identify potential areas for international cooperation'.

Essentially the government representatives committed to begin open, high-level policy dialogue on space exploration at government-level for the benefit of humankind. The United States offered to host the next get-together in 2013.

China's delegate Jianalin Cao was proud to trumpet recent Chinese successors and highlighted the country's slow but steady progress in taking up the space mantel.

I asked him whether China had aspirations to take its involvement with Europe's long-delayed and woefully over budget Galileo satellite navigation system further?

Speaking through an interpreter - despite his seemingly perfect command of the English language - Cao stated that his country was "starting a new cooperation" with Europe on satellite navigation.

But other than confirming that problems with equipment compatibilities and frequency spectrums were being overcome, little else was forthcoming.

The question of whether China might soon dip into it's pockets and become a major part of Galileo must remain conjecture for the time being.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Tuscan delight

An unexpected turn of events. I find myself on BA’s midday flight from London Heathrow to Pisa, Italy. The Airbus 320 is packed to the rafters and I have to settle for a middle-of-the row seat between two Italian ladies.

Soon we have left the murky British weather of recent days far below and are flying at around 35,000 feet in clear blue skies and sunshine, probably somewhere over Paris.

I’m heading out for a first visit to the medieval Tuscan town of Lucca, one of the most quaint and beautiful towns in this part of Italy, about 30 minutes’ drive from Pisa and maybe an hour from Florence.

As it happens, the Lighthouse Keeper and his then young wife visited Pisa and Florence in the early 1980s. The towns were stopping off points on one of those quite popular (in that decade) 'overland treks' by minibus.

The visit to Pisa was particularly noteworthy because it was in the days before serious ‘health and safety’ rules and regulations had blighted most of Europe and elsewhere.

It meant that, for a few Italian lira, tourists could climb the leaning tower’s ancient stone steps and peer precariously out over the flimsy metal balustrade from very near the top.

Of course, we had no digital cameras or mobile phones in those days to photograph the experience, though somewhere we have faded colour prints and a few precious colour slides as a record of our adventure.

This year’s Tuscan visit to Lucca was prompted by attendance at the grandly titled ‘Third International Space Conference’, thanks to sponsorship of a dozen or so European media people by ESA and the European Commission.

There’s a bit more on the conference to come later but in the meantime here are a selection of photos I managed to shoot whilst getting lost in the streets of Lucca for a couple of hours on a sunny November afternoon.

Saturday, 5 November 2011

Journey through space

Spaceflight magazine was first published in 1957 and in all this time there have been only four editors — Patrick Moore, Ken Gatland, Gerald Groves and myself — which must be approaching a record for a magazine with such a long publishing history.

Like the long-running science fiction series Dr Who on BBC TV — where every so often the Doctor regenerates in a new bodily form — it is time for some ‘regeneration’ on Spaceflight. I’ve been at the helm since September 2000 and will be moving on, so this December 2011 (published this weekend) issue is my last as editor.

My association with the British Interplanetary Society (BIS) dates back to the early 1980s when I first became a BIS member, and later started writing occasional articles for Spaceflight.

After working for the marketing departments of two international companies — Perkins Engines in Peterborough and Matra Marconi Space in Portsmouth — for several years I received a phone call in the summer of 2000 to ask if I’d be interested in taking over as editor from Gerald Groves. At the same time I was also running SimComm Europe, a marketing and PR agency founded by myself a few years earlier in south-east Hampshire.

Producing a publication such as Spaceflight every month and maintaining high standards in terms of content and appearance is always a big challenge on a part-time contract — but it has been a privilege to guide and develop the magazine for the past 10 years.

All along the way it has been a great team effort and I have had invaluable support from many people, including a dedicated and expert team of contributors who have all freely given their time — writers, photographers, media and PR people, as well as those with a genuine passion for spaceflight.

It’s not possible to thank everyone but I’d like to acknowledge some of those who have directly supported me with great enthusiasm over the past years and helped enhance Spaceflight’s long-standing reputation.

My sincere thanks to Tim Furniss, Ken Kremer, Gerard van de Haar, Joel Powell, Philip Corneille, Dwayne Day, Ralph Gibson, Ed Hengeveld, Rudolf van Beest, Jacques van Oene, Kelvin Long, Andrew Green, Nick Spall, Rob Coppinger, Tony Quine, George Spiteri, Geoff Richards, Francis French, David A Hardy, Michael Cockerham, Mark Williamson, Lucy Owens (my invaluable deputy editor between 2001 and 2004), and BIS staff Suszann Parry, Mary Todd and Ben Jones, along with Society President Bob Parkinson for allowing that valuable commodity ‘editorial freedom’, and of course to my family for their love and support.

As for the future, the Spaceflight editorial chair ‘regenerates’ forthwith and passes to David Baker, who has a life-long passion for astronautics and the exploration of worlds beyond our own.

It’s funny how things go in circles. I first met David when I was a student and he was lecturing on space exploration in South Lincolnshire. In fact, it was he who introduced me to the BIS. Perhaps there is something in this Dr Who time travel business after all?

Time travelling Dr Who (Matt Smith) with his assistant Amy Pond ( Karen Gillan).

A rare photo-call for some of the Spaceflight writers, photographers and editor who gathered at KSC this summer for the final Space Shuttle flight. Pictured during the roll over of the decommissioned Space Shuttle Discovery are (from left): Rudolf van Beest (Netherlands), Andrew Green (UK), Clive Simpson, Joel Powell (Canada), Ken Kremer (USA) and Gerard van de Haar (Netherlands).
'Journey through space' - based on article in Spaceflight magazine, December 2011

Monday, 31 October 2011

Sunshine in Rutland

We can’t consign the balmy month of October 2011 to history without noting that in the UK temperatures soared, reaching a new record high for the month of 29.9 C.

The top temperature was recorded on the first day of the month in Swanscombe, Kent, which basked in 165 hours of sunshine this month, an average of more than five a day. The previous hottest October day was 29.4 C, recorded in Cambridgeshire in 1985.

Although the temperatures dropped back somewhat in the following days, overall Britain enjoyed its warmest October for five years and its seventh warmest since records began.

The balmy autumn was relatively dry too, with average rainfall of 64 mm for the month and less than 20 mm in the East Midlands, East Anglia and the north Home Counties. This made it drier than three out of four of the last 100 Octobers.

It was sunnier than three-quarters of all Octobers in the last 100 years, with an average of 123 hours of sunshine for England and Wales, and 69 hours for Scotland.

The month almost ended as it started too as October seemed intent on signing off on a high note. It was a pleasant surprise to enjoy a picture-prefect day on 28 October - the last day of school half-term week - with warm sunshine and a deep blue sky.

A day trip to Rutland Water, a man-made reservoir in the east of England, was all the more special for the fine weather, with the opportunity to picnic outside and bask in the bright sunlight.

As these pictures show, however, much of East Anglia is still in drought conditions. The reservoir’s water level is well below where Anglian Water would like it to be.

Rutland Water, set in 4200 acres of open countryside, is Anglian Water's drinking water reservoir in the county of Rutland, England, just east of the county town Oakham. It was known as Empingham Reservoir during its construction and until its official opening in 1976.

It provides a reserve supply of water in the driest and most densely populated quarter of the United Kingdom and is one of the largest artificial lakes in Europe. By surface area it is the largest reservoir in England, though by capacity it is exceeded by Kielder Water in Northumberland.

Monday, 10 October 2011

Let there be light

The Milky Way strode across the sky, a band of faint light spanning almost from horizon to horizon. In the distance, lights sparkled like ships on a dark ocean. Such a dark sky with a myriad twinkling stars is a sight that is becoming all too rare - or even beyond the experience of many.

This is the heart of the Fens at night. A natural planetarium with glorious low horizons in every direction and a pitch dark sky, just far enough from the sodium city lights of Peterborough and the market towns of Stamford and Spalding.

Indeed, this part of South Lincolnshire, an industrial farming and food-producing landscape by day, is by night one of Britain’s dwindling exceptions to our light-polluted lives.

According to the Council for the Protection of Rural England (CPRE), places with the ‘purest’ night-time darkness are (perhaps by definition) among the least populated in the country.

Dartmoor, Exmoor and the Quantock Hills in the south west; Salisbury Plain and the top of the Chilterns in southern England; parts of Lincolnshire to the east; the Black Mountains and the Brecons in Wales; the Yorkshire moors and some of Northumberland; plus large swathes of Scotland, outside major cities and the Borders.

Early this year Sark – the smallest of the four Channel Islands at just a couple of square miles – became the world's first officially-designated ‘Dark Sky Island’.

The US-based International Dark-Sky Association measured Sark's night-time illumination levels and assessed the degree of visibility of constellations in the night sky. And to assist Sark's claim, one of its government officers visited every outside light on the island and recommended measures to cut artificial light seeping into the sky.

Sark is not Britain's only dark success. In 2009 Galloway Forest in Scotland was designated Europe's first ‘Dark Sky Park’. As a result visitor numbers are booming, a new observatory is planned for the edge of the forest and neighbouring local councils have introduced restrictions on outside lighting to preserve the quality of darkness.

The Inner Hebrides’ island of Coll, 13 miles long and three miles wide with two main roads and a small airport, is another dark spot with no security lights on homes, or traffic or street lights.

Much closer to home, the Rutland village of Market Overton recently reduced its light pollution by replacing its old sodium street lights with modern light-emitting diode lamps. Its 39 lamps cost over £20,000 in total to convert but immediately produced an 80 per cent saving in electricity.

These locations, however, remain the exceptions to the light-polluted rule. And they are getting rarer thanks to what the Campaign for Dark Skies describes as ‘wasteful’ over-provision of domestic lighting by British householders.

CPRE has, for several years, urged government action to limit light pollution from street lamps, overnight illumination of shopping centres, office blocks and public buildings, stark upward lighting from floodlit sports complexes and, at the household level, outdoor lights that are unnecessarily bright or disperse their illumination. Of course it would also save a lot of money and energy too – Britain's street lamps alone cost an estimated £500 million a year to run.

The most common forms of such pollution are ‘light trespass’ when illumination from Britain's 22 million homes and 7.5 million street lights, even if designed with the intention of shining downwards, typically also extends upwards. You can see it in this picture of the UK at night as seen by astronauts passing overhead aboard the International Space Station.

Two other common forms are ‘sky glow’ – that orange glow visible for tens of miles around towns and cities easily seen from the air or from distant roads – and ‘glare’, the harsh white light on some modern housing estates and golf driving ranges at night.

As October marches onwards, here in the northern hemisphere we are plunging headlong into days of less daylight, longer nights and the clocks going back – all marking the onset of winter. And, while we say we prefer it lighter for longer, in reality most of us only now experience a limited degree of darkness.

Modern electricity's triumph over the night keeps us all busier. We live in a fast-moving, fully lit world where night still happens but is more of an optional experience – a kind of failed daylight. Our 24/7 supermarket culture has done it’s best to phase out the night.

Yet slowness and silence – the different rhythm of the night – are a necessary correction to the day. Life is too short to be all daylight. Moments of life take on a different quality at night-time, where the moon reflects the light of the sun and we have time to reflect what life is to us. So why not turn down the lights and rest awhile? Night is not less – it's more.

The Lighthouse Keeper is written by Clive Simpson - for more information, commission enquiries or to re-publish any of his articles click here for contact details

Saturday, 24 September 2011

How high is Everest?

In an effort to put an end to generations of controversy, the authorities in Nepal are trying to ascertain the precise height of the world's biggest mountain. The project could take up to two years - and even then it is more than likely that not everyone will agree.

While for well over 100 years Everest has been recognised as the planet's highest point, there are differences of opinion as to the exact dimensions and even over what should actually be measured.

For more than half a century, Nepal has recognised the generally accepted height of 29,028 ft for the mountain they call Sagarmatha - despite the insistence by neighbouring China that what it refers to in Tibetan as Qomolangma (Holy Mother), is actually 29,017 ft. The mountain straddles the border and neither side wishes to back down.

"We have begun the measurement to clear this confusion," Gopal Giri, a spokesman with Nepal's land management ministry. "Now we have the technology and the resources we can measure ourselves. This will be the first time the Nepal government has taken the mountain's height."

The task of measuring the height of the world’s highest mountain was first performed during the days of British rule in the subcontinent by a Bengali mathematician, Radhanath Sikdar, employed in the office of the surveyor general, Sir Andrew Waugh.

At the time the British authorities were conducting the so-called Great Trigonometric Survey and it was believed that Kangchenjunga in Sikkim was the world's highest. But based on data collected from the field, Sikdar concluded in 1854 that another nearby peak, at the time referred to simply as Summit XV, was higher.

For two years, the team reassessed the findings and then, confident of what they had discovered a new giant, announced their news. Several years later, in 1865, Sir Andrew declared that the peak would be known as Mount Everest, in honour of his predecessor, Sir George Everest. Based on the average figure obtained from six separate surveying stations, each 100 miles from the mountain, it was said to have a height of 29,002 ft.

This height remained in accepted use for the best part of a century, including in 1953 when Edmund Hilary and Norgay Tenzing made their way to the summit and safely descended.

The following year, a survey by the Indian authorities suggested a new height for the mountain, of 29,028 ft, based on the average reading for 12 survey stations, located between 30 and 50 miles from Everest. But the availability of new technology in the subsequent years led new teams to question the estimate. In 1992 a joint Chinese and Italian expedition team was the first to use GPS technology and came up with a figure of 29,031 ft.

In 1999, a team led by the late American mountaineer Bradford Washburn spent several years working with GPS devices to make a new calculation. Washburn's climbers were able to reach the summit and use their measuring devices.

Not only did they come up with a new height, 29,035.3 ft, but they said they had also been able to measure the movement of the Everest massif, being pushed by the Eurasian continental shelf. They estimated that the mountain was moving north-east by around a quarter of an inch a year.

There the matter may have ended, but for the wishes of the Chinese to take yet another measurement. In 2005, a team of mountaineers and researchers climbed Everest from the Chinese side and announced a new reading of 29,017 ft. However, they said this only measured the actual rock formation of Everest and not the snow cap on the very top.

Nepali officials complained that during discussions about the border with their much larger neighbour, China insisted on using its own measure. But last year, the two countries agreed that both measurements might be correct.

"Both are correct heights. No measurement is absolute. This is a problem of scientific research," Raja Ram Chhatkuli, director general of Nepal's survey department, said at the time.

Mr Chhatkuli will be overseeing Nepal's own attempt at a precise assessment in which scientists will place three GPS devices on different locations on the mountain from which to obtain data.

If you are a regular reader you may be asking, why the sudden interest in Everest by the Lighthouse Keeper on a blog that has previously made its name largely covering the final two missions of the US Space Shuttle?

Well, the Lighthouse Keeper hasn’t made it any where near the top of this mighty mountain - but this autumn is the tenth anniversary of my first visit to Nepal and a high-level trek through the Everest region.

That was in the days before blogs so, come next month, the Lighthouse Keeper will be putting things right and embarking on the trip all over again - this time from the relative comforts of home.

A kind of day-by-day blog retrospective reliving the journey in words and pictures - from the excitement and heat of Kathmandu to the extreme cold and wilds of the lower reaches of Everest. Stay tuned for a great upcoming adventure!

Friday, 16 September 2011

Pictures from above

As a keen photographer the Lighthouse Keeper is always looking for a new angle or perspective on a familiar subject - but from an earthly vantage point even perched atop of a high crane is no match for the kind of views astronauts have from the orbiting International Space Station.

This night time view of India-Pakistan borderlands was one of a series of night-time shots captured recently by one of the six crew members, who often say that one of their favourite off-duty pastimes is gazing back at Earth as there is "always something spectacular to see".

Clusters of yellow lights on the Indo-Gangetic Plain of northern India and northern Pakistan reveal numerous cities both large and small.

Of the hundreds of clusters, the largest are the metropolitan areas associated with the capital cities of Islamabad, Pakistan, in the foreground and New Delhi, India, at the top. For scale these metropolitan areas are approximately 700 km apart.

The lines of major highways connecting the larger cities also stand out. More subtle but still visible at night are the general outlines of the towering and partly cloud-covered Himalayan ranges immediately to the north (left).

A striking feature of this photograph is the line of lights, with a distinctly more orange hue, snaking across the central part of the image.

It appears to be more continuous and brighter than most highways in the view and is actually the fenced and floodlit border zone between the countries of India and Pakistan. The fence is designed to discourage smuggling and arms trafficking between the two countries.

This image was taken on a digital SLR camera with a 16 mm lens to provide a wide field of view, as the Space Station was tracking towards the southeast across the subcontinent of India.

The distinct, bright zone above the horizon (visible at top) is produced by airglow, a phenomena caused by excitation of atoms and molecules high in the atmosphere (above 80 km altitude) by ultraviolet radiation from the Sun. Part of the ISS and a solar panel array are visible at right.

This photograph below, taken from the Space Station at the end of July 2011, shows the Moon with the limb of Earth near the bottom, transitioning into the orange-coloured troposphere, the lowest and most dense portion of Earth's atmosphere.

The troposphere ends abruptly at the tropopause, which appears in the image as the sharp boundary between the orange and blue-coloured atmosphere. The silvery-blue noctilucent clouds extend far above the Earth's troposphere.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Faith and fragrance

Warm rain poured out of a dark sky on a typically humid evening in Hyderabad, India. But along the Hussainsagar lake it was a cacophony of noise and light, a carnival atmosphere as the climax of the boisterous Hindu Ganesh festival was in full swing.

People had been arriving all day for the traditional ending which involves immersing carefully prepared Ganesh idols in the murky waters of the lake. A series of cranes lined the lakeside, lowering each Ganesh on a platform into the water to be received by holy men.

Trucks and vehicles of all shapes and sizes, decorated with flowers and flags and stacked with families and Ganesh idols began arriving early in the day and continued throughout the evening as people poured into the city to experience the religious fervour.

Ganesh is one of the best-known and most popularly worshipped deities in Hinduism and, although known by many other attributes, Ganesh's elephant head makes for easy and familiar identification.

The Ganesh festival for 2011 - an occasion on which Lord Ganesh, the son of Shiva and Parvati, is believed to bestow his presence on earth for all his devotees - has just ended.

It is the birthday of Lord Ganesha and is observed in the Hindu calendar month of Bhaadrapada, starting on the shukla chaturthi (fourth day of the waxing moon period), typically between 20 August and 15 September.

The Lighthouse Keeper’s own and unexpected eye-witness experience of the Ganesh festival came during a stay several years ago in Hyderabad for a business conference and exhibition, which was hijacked for the day as police closed roads and access across the city.

As it happened the city's Marriott hotel was just across the road from the Hussainsagar lake so, being ‘confined to quarters’ for a day and night was not such a bad option, as the thick of the action was just a ‘stroll’ across the road and offered a great opportunity for photography.

The Ganesh festival is completed only with the immersion of the idols but civic bodies in many Indian cities are becoming increasingly concerned with the ecological issues surrounding the festival and the environmental impact on the bodies of water that are a focus of the ceremony.

This year an estimated 1,300 tonnes of rubbish has already been lifted from the main spots around the Hussainsagar lake as more than 100 vehicles and 2,500 municipal staff were pressed into service during a massive clean-up operation.

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Misty mellowness

There seems to be no doubt that the seasons are advancing and arriving earlier each year. And it is becoming a rather peculiar thing.

September is traditionally renowned as the genteel easing from summer into the golden days of autumn, a calm, collected and wonderfully settled time of year when the harvest is finally gathered.

So, here we are in the very first week of the month experiencing fearsome gales and storms associated more with the unpredictability of October. Perhaps there has been some kind of shift in the matrix?

We know from the changing habits of migrating birds and tree records that in recent years spring has been arriving at our shores considerably earlier than in the past - some three or four weeks compared with even 20 years ago.

If spring is around the corner as we’ve barely closed our curtains on the winter calendar surely the other seasons are marching forward apace too.

Even before the UK’s most recent late summer public holiday at the end of August a farmer friend was delighted to tell me during a chat in the local pub that he had already completed the annual harvest - some three to four weeks earlier than normal.

And the very next day, as if to prove a point, a low morning mist hung in the dewy autumnal early morning air. It certainly seemed that the ‘season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’ as portrayed so eloquently by John Keats back in 1820 was well and truly upon us.

The powers that be already preform minor adjustments to our calendar and time-keeping to hold our days and time in check - every four years we have a leap year. Infact, it’s actually more like a ‘leap day’, inserted at the end of February.

So, to combat our rolling seasonal disorder why not introduce a leap month? It could be just the solution governments have been looking for. A cheeky way to ignore the vagaries of encroaching climate change - a kind of turning back the clock.

But would it really be a good alternative to buckling down and getting to grips with excessive power and energy consumption, which might at least slow down the man-made acceleration to climate change in the first place?

Questions, questions. I guess in the end it comes down to a personal level - how which are we all prepared as individuals to change our lifestyles, if at all?

In today’s quick fix society having a ‘leap month’ every now and then might just prove more politically attractive. A solution without solving the actual problem. And instead of ‘climate change’ we could rebrand it ‘season change’.

The only thing then to decide is which month should we skip to bring things back into alignment? We might all have our favourites - which one would you pick?

Wednesday, 31 August 2011

A twist of fate

No one would have dared predict that the first Russian rocket to be launched to the International Space Station (ISS) following the retirement of the US Space Shuttle this summer would be doomed to failure.

It is an ironic turn of events that means for the time being the ISS is currently flying with no means of replacing the astronauts and cosmonauts working on the recently completed orbiting outpost.

At the very least last week’s Russian rocket failure will likely delay the first post-Shuttle era launch of new crew members to the Station. And at worst it could mean a complete withdrawal of all crew before the year’s end if Russia is unable to resume manned flights of its Soyuz rocket.

Despite the delivery of important logistics by the final Space Shuttle mission in July, safety concerns with landing Soyuz capsules in the middle of winter could force the Space Station to fly unmanned beginning in November, according to Michael Suffredini, NASA's ISS programme manager.

Investigations started immediately into why the upper stage of a Soyuz-U booster carrying an unmanned Russian Progress supply ship malfunctioned and shut down five minutes and 20 seconds after launch from Baikonur in Kazakhstan.

Some 2.9 tons of supplies and equipment for the Space Station were lost as the Progress M-12M/44P spacecraft crashed back to Earth during what was ironically the first launch to the orbiting complex since the Space Shuttle was retired in July.

The supply train to the ISS is critical for supporting a full-time crew of six but for now the Station remains in good shape thanks to the deliveries by Atlantis in July.

The Soyuz-U upper stage is virtually identical to the third stage used by Russia’s manned Soyuz spacecraft, which was targeted to launch again on 22 September.

With two Soyuz crew launches and two Progress deliveries scheduled before the end of 2011, the failure is certain to disrupt plans to ferry new crews and cargo shipments to the ISS.

Three current crew members — Expedition 28 commander Andrey Borisenko, Alexander Samokutyaev and Ronald Garan — will have their return to Earth, which was scheduled for 8 September, postponed for several weeks to keep six people at the ISS for as long as possible.

But Garan and his two cosmonaut colleagues could only extend their stay until late October when they would have to return to Earth. The Soyuz spacecraft they will fly home in has an orbital life due to ‘expire’ around 22 October - which means the ship is certified by engineering teams as safe for the return flight to Earth until that date.

A departure at that point would leave just three people on the ISS until Soyuz launches can resume. A crew of three can maintain the outpost but science and research work would suffer.

The other half of the Station's six-person crew — NASA flight engineer Michael Fossum, Russian cosmonaut Sergei Volkov and Japanese astronaut Satoshi Furukawa — are supposed to return home on 16 November.

"The November crew has a little different issue," Suffredini said this week. "If we're not launching by then and we have to de-man the Space Station, we pretty much have to do that probably by about the middle of November."

That crew's Soyuz capsule, named Soyuz TMA-02M, blasted off June 7 and would need to land in late December or early January.

"One of our requirements is to land in daylight, and it has to be an hour from sunset or sunrise," Suffredini said. "On 19 November we reach that cutoff and we go dark."

The next daylight landing window opens in late December, but NASA and Russian officials will then be concerned about extreme winter weather conditions in the Soyuz landing zone on the steppes of Kazakhstan.

"The weather is severe out there in the winter time," Suffredini said. "So from a search and rescue standpoint, that's probably something we don't want to do. Even if it's within our requirements, we probably don't want to be landing two hours before sunset. If we had any problem at all, we would be searching for the crew in a blowing snow storm in the middle of night."

The Soyuz-U rocket has a good safety record over the past four decades of operations — 745 successful launches and 21 failures — and this is the first time there has been such a failure since construction of the Space Station started a decade ago.

With the United States' Shuttle fleet retirement last month, Russian Soyuz spacecraft are currently the only vehicles capable of flying astronauts to and from the Space Station. NASA is investing in the development of commercial ‘private’ space taxis, but those craft remain in development stage and are not estimated to be ready before 2015 or 2016.

Ken Kremer, who has reported on all of the last Space Shuttle flights to the ISS in recent years for Spaceflight magazine, said the loss of the Russian Progress highlighted the "utter folly" of the Shuttle programme shutdown.

Saturday, 20 August 2011

Close encounters

For some time NASA has been working hard to counter the notion that the end of the Space Shuttle era means the end of US human spaceflight. And there are commercial companies waiting in the wings.

At Kennedy Space Center just before the launch of Atlantis in July several companies were taking advantage of the large media presence to showcase their proposed spacecraft and rockets of the future.

In one air conditioned ‘tent’ Lockheed Martin displayed a test model of its Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle that may one day take Americans to destinations beyond the Space Station – like the asteroids and Mars.

Next door, Boeing showcased its CST-100 capsule concept, one of the ‘crew taxis' NASA eventually hopes to hire to get its astronauts to and from orbit by mid-decade.

And Elon Musk's SpaceX company threw open its doors on the nearby Cape Canaveral Air Force Station where it has a rocket integration hanger and launch pad. From here it flies its Falcon rocket – the next test flight is planned for this autumn – and ‘Dragon Rider' capsule, another commercial answer to America's astronaut taxi dilemma.

Whilst these companies are all pursuing the more ‘traditional’ route into orbit others, like the US Air Force and the Colorado-based Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC), are convinced the future is still in winged reusable spacecraft. SNC's mini-shuttle called Dream Chaser could be launched for the first time in 2015.

Many argue that these new spacecraft represent a more affordable, commercial and even more exciting approach to future human spaceflight.

Not surprisingly NASA administrator, Charlie Bolden, himself a former Shuttle astronaut, is convinced that human spaceflight has a bright future. "You'll hear me say that over and over and over again. The future is incredible and you're witnessing the first steps NASA is taking to create that future right now," he told the gathered media.

As a clear signal of its intention to crank up the momentum wherever possible NASA this week gave SpaceX approval to launch its next Falcon 9 on 30 November — followed nine days later by the Dragon capsule berthing at the International Space Station (ISS).

During the tour of its facilities in July, SpaceX was keen to show us that its has been hard at work preparing for this next flight — a mission designed to demonstrate that a privately-developed space transportation system can deliver cargo to and from the Space Station.

NASA has now agreed in principle to allow SpaceX to combine all of the tests and demonstration activities originally proposed as two separate missions into one time-saving flight.

After catching the ISS and coming alongside, the capsule will be grappled by the Station's Canadian-built robot arm and transferred to a docking port. It will likely stay at the ISS for a few weeks, delivering some non-essential cargo in its pressurised cabin before returning to Earth via a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean.

This next mission represents a huge milestone — not only for SpaceX but also for NASA and the US space programme. When the astronauts stationed on the ISS open the hatch and enter the Dragon spacecraft for the first time, it will mark the beginning of a new era in space travel.

SpaceX was keen to show us the workings of the launch pad where it has made significant upgrades over the summer to streamline the countdown. New liquid oxygen (LOX) pumps, for example, will reduce previous loading time from 90 minutes to under 30, inching the company closer to its long term goal of Falcon 9 going from hangar to liftoff in under an hour.

We also saw the first stage of the 15-story Falcon 9 — the rocket that is now due to blast off 30 November — lying on its side in the integration hanger at Cape Canaveral's Complex 40. It had arrived in April, followed by the launcher's second stage in July.

Company officials, however, were nervous when it came to photography, particularly where the rocket engines were concerned. We were forbidden to take close-ups that showed the engines in detail, though no objections were raised to the ‘space paparazi’ scrambling on their backs underneath the first stage to capture shots of the SpaceX logo!

Also proudly on show, this time in a tent in the grounds of the SpaceX launch control centre close to Port Canaveral, was the burnt and battered Dragon capsule that was successfully flown into orbit and parachuted back to Earth last December. Here you could closely inspect and almost touch something that had orbited Earth less than a year before.