Monday, 29 July 2013

Curiosity on Mars!

An image from NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter released last week shows NASA's Curiosity Mars rover and the wheel tracks from its landing site to the Glenelg area where the rover worked for the first half of 2013.

The orbiter's High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera captured the scene on 27 June 2013, with the orbiter rolled for an eastward-looking angle rather than straight downward. The afternoon sun illuminated the scene from the western sky, so the lighting was nearly behind the camera. This geometry hides shadows and reveals subtle colour variations.

Curiosity that day was examining an outcrop called Shaler, the rover mission's final science target in the Glenelg area before commencing a many-month trek southwestward to an entry point for the lower layers of Mount Sharp. The rover appears as a bright blue spot in the enhanced colouring of the image.

The image also shows two scour marks at the Bradbury landing site where the Mars Science Laboratory mission's skycrane landing system placed Curiosity onto the ground just about one year ago on 6 August 2012.

The scour marks are where the landing system's rockets cleared away reddish surface dust. Visible tracks commencing at the landing site show the path the rover travelled eastward to Glenelg.

Curiosity may be 140 million miles away on a hostile planet but that’s no excuse for not sending home a self-portrait.

This incredible shot shows Curiosity on the surface back in February - it comprises dozens of exposures taken by the rover's Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) during the 177th Martian day (or sol) of Curiosity's work on Mars plus three exposures taken during Sol 270 (10 May 2013) to update the appearance of part of the ground beside the rover.

The updated area, which is in the lower left quadrant of the image, shows grey-powder and two holes where Curiosity used its drill on the rock target ‘John Klein’.

The portion has been spliced into a self-portrait that was originally prepared and released in February before the use of the drill. The result shows what the site where the self-portrait was taken looked like by the time the rover was ready to drive away in May 2013.

MAHLI, which took the component images for the mosaic, is mounted on a turret at the end of the rover’s robotic arm and was able to capture the component images with wrist motions and turret rotations. The arm itself was positioned out of the shot in the images, or portions of images, used in the mosaic.

Thanks to the guys at NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS for some great photography work!

Monday, 22 July 2013

Fracking hell!

So far the market town of Spalding in South Lincolnshire seems to have escaped the rush for shale gas. But the town already has one gas fired power station dominating the flat Fenland landscape, with another one to be built alongside it on the way. And if our local MPs have anything to do with it fracking for shale gas won't be far behind...

For some UK Government ministers and MPs - including Spalding's John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings) and Peterborough’s Stewart Jackson - the enthusiasm for mining shale gas is in part fuelled by a passionate hatred of wind power based largely on the latter’s aesthetic impact on local landscapes.

Blinkered by what they see as a golden economic opportunity, it is perhaps not surprising that such MPs, along with the coalition Government in general, assume the extraction of shale gas offers a palatable and commercially attractive energy source.

Fracking - short for hydraulic fracturing - involves drilling deep underground and releasing a high-pressure mix of water, sand and hundreds of chemicals to crack rocks and release gas stored inside.

Preparing the groundwork for last week’s Government tax-break announcement for fracking prospectors, Jackson used his weekly column in the Peterborough Telegraph (5 July) to promote the shale gas case.

He wrote: "Shale gas exploration gives us another once in a lifetime opportunity with clean, cheap, plentiful and safe shale gas - rather than the lights on the blink and half a million glass panels around Newborough [near Peterborough] and windfarms to boot!

"Government has wised up to the economically damaging Liberal Democrat-inspired green policies costing the UK tens of billions of pounds," he declared.

Hayes, a former energy minister, has clearly stated his opposition to development of many forms of renewable energy and has lent his support to numerous anti-windfarm campaigns across his South Holland constituency, often on the grounds that they would ‘spoil’ the local view and amenity.

The wind power industry has had to deal with a broad range of challenges, particularly visual impact. So far this doesn’t seem to be on the shale gas radar.

But type ‘shale gas rig’ into an internet search engine and select ‘images' to see a taster of what might actually be in store for any rural community where drilling might take place.

We're likely to see the industrialisation of tracts of the British countryside, gas flaring in the home counties and a steady stream of trucks carrying contaminated water down rural lanes.

Another problem with fracking for gas is that the drilling process releases a host of undesirable by-products into the atmosphere, including large quantities of methane.

Strategic opposition to the development of shale gas in the UK rests on the fact that such large-scale exploitation is not compatible with meeting our targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Analysis by Carbon Tracker estimates that if we are to contain greenhouse gas emissions at a level that preserves a reasonable chance of remaining below the 2C of global average temperature increase (considered a critical danger threshold), then four-fifths of known fossil fuel reserves need to remain locked in the ground.

The official Committee on Climate Change has warned that in the context of the UK’s legally binding climate-change targets, a new ‘dash for gas’ should be Plan Z, not Plan A.

All this makes for a risky backdrop to shale gas development in this country, which the Government seems determined to ignore in its public pronouncements.

The industry will require major investment to get going and investors will need to be patient in getting a return, as going through the planning process and exploratory drilling will take years of expensive development before commercially useful quantities of gas are produced.

And no one really knows how much of gas can be got out, or how much that will cost both financially and to the environment at large.

Production rates for the UK are expected to be lower than in the US because of lower pressure in UK basins, while costs might be higher because of demanding local environmental standards and the proximity of populated areas.

Add to that the expectation that it will not in reality reduce energy prices, then the case for shale gas looks a lot more risky than proponents and our Government suggest.

But where there are potentially large amounts of money to be made there are also vested interests at stake.

So far the Prime Minister David Cameron has managed to dodge the claim that he bowed to pressure from lobbyists such as the Tory election strategist Lynton Crosby over the Government decision to give tax breaks for fracking.

Last week The Independent newspaper detailed the work that Mr Crosby's lobbying firm, Crosby Textor, does on behalf of companies promoting the controversial method of extracting shale gas.

The shale gas narrative and tax break presented by George Osborne last week is also, in part, based on the fear of being ‘left behind'.

Osborne’s Environment Minister colleague Owen Paterson (who dismayed climate scientists by expressing doubts as to the human impact on the climate system) used the same phrase in his promotion of GM crops.

Both Osborne and Paterson say that a technological revolution based on government getting out of the way of progress is what we need. They couldn't be more wrong.

Where we are being left behind is in the development of new environmental technologies, including renewables and carbon capture. If we are to keep up in these areas, perhaps with some gas in the mix, it requires clear policy.

You can get away with small government on some issues, but not on energy. The UK needs a clear framework and strategy that sets out how we will secure our energy needs while meeting environmental goals. Right now we don't have that.

The dash for shale - with all its inherent risks and uncertainties - ignores the massive growth potential of the renewable sector and the vital long-term goal of reducing carbon emissions.

Look at Germany, for instance. Some 26 per cent of its energy now comes from renewable sources. And its renewables industry is growing because it gets tax breaks. Germany's economy is larger, more successful and infinitely more resilient than the UK's. So who is right?

The current UK Government - initially hailed by Cameron as ‘the greenest ever’ - is a liturgy of broken promises and short-term opportunism. When it comes to energy policy and the long-term future of our country it seems that little George has no idea. And neither has little Britain.

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 information

Monday, 8 July 2013

A good day at the office

It used to be that people who were honoured by the Queen had either gone above and beyond the call of duty, done things out of pure altruism, or dedicated a life to public service. But things are changing.

So when Prime Minister David Cameron declared that Andy Murray deserved a Knighthood after becoming the first Briton to win the Wimbledon men's singles since 1936 wasn’t he riding the anti-authoritarian bandwagon, just as Tony Blair did before him?

I watched Murray on Sunday and was as thrilled as everyone else that he won an extraordinary game of tennis. I’m not convinced, however, that it merits a Knighthood.

The next day when Murray appeared at 10 Downing Street, Cameron certainly maximised the opportunity to bask in another’s reflected glory and deliver his ill-thought popularist riposte to a nation still riding a tide of emotional delight.

"I can't think of anyone who deserves one more," said Mr Cameron, in prose that somehow seemed rather weak and bereft of occasion for the political leader of our country.

Murray responded later, saying: "It's a nice thing to have or be offered but I don't know if it merits that."

Our modern-day obsession with celebrity probably has something to do with it - but Cameron ought to know better than jockeying for cheap, short-term popularity with words that hardly sounded sincere.

Should we be rewarding our sporting heros for ‘just doing their job’? Well the precedents have already been set, so it may be hard to pull back.

Remember, for example, our yatching heroine Ellen MacArthur who was made a dame before she had even set foot back on dry land?

In a similar, distorted vein we’ve been ‘rewarding’ bankers and heads of giant corporations with mega bonus’s, even when they’ve been serving a string of corporate or fiancial faults.

So fast-forward to the summer of 2014 and let’s indulge in a little ‘what if’ speculation around an unlikely outcome of the World Cup in Brazil.

Suspend reality for a moment and imagine that our lads in the England team finally get it together and play for the mother-land like never before, emulating Murray and winning the elusive soccer trophy for the first time since 1966.

A big ask I grant you - but while we are at it let’s take this topsy turvy idea a giant leap further and imagine that Wayne Rooney is the superstar hero of the tournament, scoring a series of stunning goals and rounding it all off with a hat-trick in the final.

Yes Siree - you’ve got it! Arise Sir Wayne!