Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Chinese space station

China expects to complete its first orbiting space station within a decade and be able to send crews of up to six people there for short-term missions.

Chinese officials revealed details of the country’s space plans for low Earth orbit during the 64th International Astronautical Congress (IAC) taking place in Beijing, China, this week.

Mr Dazhe Xu, general manager of China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp, said the station - covering an area of 60 square metres - would be capable of supporting three astronauts on long-term flights.

Before that China will launch the Tiangong-2 space laboratory in around two years to test renewable life support and in-orbit refuelling systems, technologies that will be essential for the safe operation of the planned space station.

Mr Xu revealed that one cargo 'shuttle' and several crewed spacecraft will be launched to dock with Tiangong-2 at different times.

According to the China Manned Space Engineering Office, the space station will consist of three capsules and a cargo 'shuttle' to transport supplies.

The station's core module will be 18.1 m in length and will weigh 20 to 22 metric tons. It will be attached to two self-contained laboratories.

Mr Wang Zhaoyao, director of the China Manned Space Agency, said that once operational astronauts will be scheduled for long-term missions in orbit, conducting a wide range of technical tests as well as medical, science and educational experiments.

Liu Yang, China's first female astronaut - who appeared with her colleague Wang Yaping, the second Chinese female astronaut who flew into space on Shenzhou 10 in June 2013 - repeated the declaration that her nation would also be willing to accept foreign astronauts for future missions.

The country successfully carried out its first manual space docking, another essential step in building a space station, in June last year when three Chinese astronauts piloted Shenzhou 9 to link up with Tiangong-1.

China became the third country to independently launch a human into space in 2003 and has been rapidly expanding its space programme ever since.

Berndt Feuerbacher, former president of the International Astronautical Federation (IAF), said that China's space programme was developing quickly and actively looking for cooperation opportunities.

The annual IAC space congress has a record number of around 3,500 space scientists and business people attending this year, representing some 74 countries from across the world.

The above is one of a series of daily reports from the International Astronautical Congress 2013 held in Beijing, China, written by Clive Simpson for the Paris-based International Astronautical Association (IAF) and first appearing on the IAF website

Saturday, 21 September 2013

Back to the blues

There is sometimes a fine line when it comes to discerning the difference between the colours of green and blue - as British Prime Minister David Cameron has been finding out.

His bold claim on coming to power to be leading the "greenest government ever" seems to be turning into something of a wistful ruse at best.

The summer’s unresolved fracas over fracking for shale gas didn’t really help matters but the latest salver came from a more unlikely source - a Conservative party donor.

Alexander Temarko, a significant British energy investor, claims investors in renewable technologies are being scared off by "seriously mis-leading" messages from the Government.

The Russian businessman, who has made donations in excess of £50,000 to the Conservative party, believes the Government is now paying little more than "lip service" to renewable energy.

Temarko says that failing to provide the clear targets investors need before committing to long term green electricity generation projects is squandering the opportunity to create thousands of jobs and generate billions of pounds in revenues.

The charge is levelled equally at the Prime Minister, his Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, and, to a lesser extent, at Ed Davey, the Energy and Climate Change Secretary.

In fairness, Davey campaigned to include a requirement in the Energy Bill - currently progressing through Parliament - that would have required the UK's electricity supply to become almost entirely ‘green' by 2030.

But Osborne replaced the target with less onerous wording that grants the Government the power from 2016 to require Britain's electricity supply to become almost entirely green only at some point in the future and should it choose to do so.

All this comes at a time when the country’s profit-hungry big six energy companies are about to announce another inflation-busting price hike to gas and electricity prices.

An exception to the rule is Ecotricity which announced mid-September that it was ending its ‘Big Six price match’ under which the small energy provider had matched each Big Six standard tariff in their home regions.

This delivered green energy for the price of brown and meant that, for most people in Britain, it costs no more to be with Ecotricity.

The company’s new pricing promise is that it will charge less than each of the Big Six standard tariffs - delivering green energy for less than the price of brown.

In the meantime, the Prime Minister and his Government’s ‘green' credentials have shifted chamaeleon-like back through the political colour spectrum to the traditional Conservative party blue.

And Temarko is right in one sense - the lack of a sound, long term energy policy is doing no one in the UK any favours.

This piece was originally scheduled for publication on 21 September 2013 but the Lighthouse Keeper was unable to access his blog due to Chinese internet restrictions whilst on assignment in Beijing and so it has been published retrospectively. The title is inspired by the album of the same name from the late Gary Moore (1952 – 2011), a musician from Belfast, Northern Ireland, best recognised as a blues rock guitarist and singer. In a career dating back to the 1960s, Moore played with artists including Phil Lynott and Brian Downey and was a member of the Irish rock band Thin Lizzy.

Friday, 20 September 2013

RSPB's fracking objection

The media hiatus in the fracking for shale gas frenzy - which graced the front pages for several weeks during the summer - has left room for some more reasoned debate and comment.

The RSPB, for instance, has waded into the issue by lodging objections to proposals to drill for shale gas and oil in Lancashire and West Sussex, citing that regulations are inadequate to ensure water, landscapes and wildlife are protected.

These are the first formal objections to fracking from the RSPB. The drilling proposal at Singleton, Lancashire, is less than a mile from an internationally important area for pink-footed geese and whooper swans.

The society is also protesting against drilling at Balcombe, West Sussex - the focus of large summer protests - on the grounds that no environmental impact assessment has been carried out.

In both written objections the charity also says that increasing oil and gas use will reduce the UK's chances of meeting climate change targets.

Harry Huyton, head of climate and energy policy at the RSPB, said: "Balcombe hit the headlines as the battleground in the debate over fracking. The public there are rightly concerned about the impact this will have on their countryside.

"We have looked closely at the rules in place to police drilling for shale gas, and they are simply not robust enough to ensure that our water, our landscapes and our wildlife are safe."

Huyton also said that Cuadrilla's proposed operations in Lancashire could damage populations of geese and swans. "This area is protected by European law because it is so valuable for wildlife and the company has done nothing to investigate what damage their activities could do to it," he claimed.

The RSPB says that Government figures show the potential for 5,000 sites and a total of up to 100,000 wells in the north of England.

"The idea that these will have a benign impact on the countryside is very difficult to believe," said Huyton.

"This is all in too much of a hurry – the regulations simply aren't in place," he added. "If Cuadrilla did their assessments and found there wasn't a serious concern, we'd accept that. But no assessments have been done."

The group's other main objection is that a push for shale gas will divert funds and attention from the UK's previously stated goal of having an electricity system almost completely powered by ‘clean' energy by 2030.

This piece was originally scheduled for publication on 20 September 2013 but the Lighthouse Keeper was unable to access his blog due to Chinese internet restrictions whilst on assignment in Beijing and so has been published retrospectively

Saturday, 14 September 2013

Message in a bottle

Give or take a few miles, a 36-year-old unmanned spacecraft is now about 12 billion miles from the Sun, a pretty incomprehensible distance whichever way you look at it.

And this week NASA's Voyager 1 spacecraft officially became the first human-made object to venture into interstellar space.

New data gathered during the summer indicate Voyager 1 has now been travelling for about one year through the plasma (ionized gas) of interstellar space, the space between stars.

Covering nearly a million miles a day, the nuclear-powered spacecraft, has well and truly crossed the boundary between the Sun's influence and interstellar space, sailing into the vast gulf between the stars to become humanity's first true starship.

The announcement was made this week by scientists at NASA’s JPL in California, including Voyager project scientist Ed Stone.

"In leaving the solar system and setting sail on the cosmic seas between the stars, Voyager has joined the other historic journeys of exploration such as the first circumnavigation of the Earth and the first footprint on the Moon," he said.

"This historic step is even more exciting because it marks the beginning of a new era of exploration for Voyager, the exploration of the space between the stars."

It may be a new era of exploration for humankind but in reality we’ll get only limited information from Voyager, partly because of the vast distances involved and also because its instruments are being to wear out.

The fact that some are working even now is testament to the robust design of a spacecraft that was only ever meant to gather data from a spectacular journey through the giant planets of our solar system.

Voyager 1 reached the boundary of the heliosphere in 2004, a milestone marked by readings showing the speed of the solar wind had dropped below that of sound. But it took another nine years to complete the crossing and move out into interstellar space.

The actual transition likely occurred in August last year but an instrument that would have confirmed that failed in 1980, forcing scientists to rely on less direct methods of observation.

As it turned out, the Sun cooperated, blasting huge clouds of charged particles and magnetic energy in Voyager 1's direction in March 2012. When the particles finally got there 13 months later, they created detectable vibrations in the electrically charged plasma surrounding the spacecraft.

After studying those waves, scientists concluded the density of the material was 40 times higher than it would be if Voyager 1 was still in the heliosphere.

The heliosphere is defined by the Sun's magnetic field and is filled with electrically charged particles blasted away from the Sun in all directions -- the solar wind.

Our Sun, its planets, moons, asteroids and comets are embedded in a vast, t teardrop-shaped region, or bubble, in space known as the heliosphere.

Voyager 2 was launched on 20 August 1977 and Voyager 1 lifted off on 5 September the same year. Both probes carry gold discs with recordings designed to portray the diversity of culture on Earth - just incase they are ever intercepted by distant intelligent life forms.

The probes were launched on different trajectories. Voyager 2′s so-called 'slow' trajectory enabled it to visit all four giant planets, while Voyager 1′s faster trajectory meant it would head into deep space after visiting Jupiter and Saturn.

Voyager 1 is now the furthest human-built object from Earth and the distance is so vast that it takes 17 hours now for a radio signal sent from Voyager to reach receivers on Earth.

It is expected that their plutonium power sources will stop supplying electricity in about 10 years, at which point their instruments and 20W transmitters will die. After that Voyager 1 will not approach another star for nearly 40,000 years.

When Voyager 1 blasted into space the world we live in was a very different place and much has changed in the intervening decades, both socially and from a technological perspective.

The Voyager spacecraft was designed to run most of its operations itself and computing power was impressive for its time.

Each probe has three interconnected computer systems: one to control the craft’s flight and altitude, another to control its instruments, and a third to manage the first two.

The computers can process about 8,000 instructions per second - a fraction of the capability of a modern smartphone, which handles upwards of 14 billion each second. With memory measured in kilobytes, the Voyager computers can hold only hold a few thousand words worth of text.

Probably the most intriguing piece of technology onboard Voyager is the legendary ‘Golden Record’ - a phonograph record packaged with a cartridge and needle, operating instructions and loaded with information about Earth.

It contains 115 images of humans, animals and airports, spoken greetings in languages from Akkadian to Chinese, a message from US President Carter and an eclectic 90 minute selection of music.

Carrying such a disc as it travels in silence though the depths of space, Voyager 1 is effectively humanity’s interstellar ‘message in a bottle’ - speeding ever outwards through the ocean of interstellar space towards the edge of forever.

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Running on empty

It probably slipped past without so much as a blip on the Richter scale of life. Our busy, consumer-led lives likely won’t have notched up that a couple of weeks ago (20 August 2013) was the date humanity exhausted nature’s annual budget for our planet.

As a result we are now operating in overdraft mode and, for the rest of the year, we will maintain our ecological deficit by drawing down local resource stocks and accumulating carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Just as a bank statement tracks income against expenditures, the Global Footprint Network measures humanity’s demand for and supply of natural resources and ecological services. The data is somewhat sobering.

Global Footprint Network estimates that it now takes only approximately eight months for the world’s population as a whole to demand more renewable resources and carbon dioxide sequestration than Earth can provide for an entire year.

Earth Overshoot Day, a concept originally developed by Global Footprint Network partner and UK think tank the New Economics Foundation, is the annual marker of when we begin living beyond our means in a given year.

While only a rough estimate of time and resource trends, it is as close as we can get to measuring the gap between our demand for ecological resources and services, and how much the planet can provide.

Just over a decade ago Earth Overshoot Day fell on 21 October. Given current trends in consumption, one thing is clear - it is relentlessly creeping forward and arriving earlier each year.

Throughout most of history, humanity has used nature’s resources to build homes, towns, cities and roads, to provide food and create products, and to absorb our carbon dioxide at a rate that was well within Earth’s budget. But, in the mid-1970s, we crossed a critical threshold when human consumption began outstripping what the planet could reproduce.

The fact that we are now using, or ‘spending’, our natural capital much faster than it can be replenished is similar to having expenditures that continuously exceed income, a financial deficit.

In planetary terms, the costs of our ecological overspending are becoming more evident by the day. Climate change - a result of greenhouse gases being emitted faster than they can be absorbed by forests and oceans - is one of the most obvious and arguably pressing result.

But there are others - shrinking forests, species loss, fisheries collapse, higher commodity prices, civil unrest and water shortages, to name a few. The environmental and economic crises we are beginning to experience more frequently are symptoms of looming catastrophe.

While the global financial recession that began in October 2008 slowed humanity’s demand for resources somewhat, our overall consumption continues to rise.

To stand any chance of avoiding much more than economic hardship for the planet’s seven billion and growing population, resource limits must be at the core of future decision-making.

Today, more than 80 percent of the world’s population live in nations that use more than their own ecosystems can renew. These ‘ecological debtor’ countries either deplete their own ecological resources or get them from elsewhere.

Ecological debtors are using more than they have within their own borders. Japan’s residents consume the ecological resources of 7.1 Japans. It would take four Italys to support Italy, and 3.5 UK’s - all just at current rates of consumption.

Not every country demands more than their ecosystems can provide, but even the reserves of such ‘ecological creditors’ like Brazil, Indonesia, and Sweden are shrinking over time.

Just as in the financial crisis of 2008, we can no longer sustain a widening gap between what nature is able to provide and how much our infrastructure, economies and lifestyles require.

As Earth Overshoot Day continues its inexorable and quickening march closer to the start of each year we have no real idea of the consequences our living in this way will ultimately have. One thing is for sure, though. We all have some tough choices - both individually and as nations - coming up.