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