Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Choosing our destiny

 James Vaughan

SIXTY years ago this month the Soviet Union’s Sputnik 1 became the first artificial satellite to orbit Earth and the world woke up to a new age - the Space Age.

This first satellite was a marker in human history and heralded a massive period of growth in science and technological development, much of it spurred by the subsequent six decades of space exploration.

In its broadest sense the whole sphere of space exploration, its inherent international cooperation and the expanding worldwide business of space has had a massively positive impact on the world.

Despite this, one wonders whether planet Earth has perhaps become a rather gloomy place of late - a world where vested interests often trump the wider common good, a world where optimism might be in short supply?

Like so many inventions and revolutions that have come of age and spawned a new breed of adventurers and entrepreneurs, there are also significant pitfalls and dangers on the road into deeper space.

In his magnum opus De Re Metallica (Of Metal Matters) on natural resources, the 16th century scientist and philosopher Georgius Agricola wrote, ‘Good men employ the elements for good and to them they are useful. The wicked use them badly and to them they are harmful.’

The approach of Agricola, widely regarded as the originator of the experimental approach to science, is perhaps more sensible than either the blind faith of the pure optimist or the destructive cynicism of the pessimist.
De Re Metallica (Of Metal Matters)

His renaissance philosophy speaks to many of the challenges society still faces today because many of our most potent technologies - space included - are finely balanced between creation and destruction, between benefit and exploitation.

Whereas sometimes a mechanism might be needed to tip the balance towards good, Agricola’s philosophy also reminds us of the need for wise leadership whether in politics, business, science or technology.

In Earth orbit, for example, we continue to exploit the opportunities provided by satellites for communications, navigation, TV broadcasting, observation and research, whilst at the same time creating a serious debris problem.

Space exploration is inextricably linked to the great reach of human progress and, if our further expansion beyond Earth is not to stall, the considered words of a scientist such as Agricola might just provide guidance enough for our future custody of the space realm.

We might also be wise to heed the solemn and inherent warning in a Buddhist proverb which tells us that,‘to every man is given the key to the gates of heaven, the same key also opens the gates of hell.’

Sputnik, the first artificial satellite, was launched on 4 October 1957.

In the days following the first Sputnik our vision of the future was perhaps more constrained. Today we find ourselves on the threshold of an unimagined space tourism era, eagerly anticipating the first crewed flights to Mars and perhaps even human colonies on the red planet.

At the same time zealous entrepreneurs, and even whole countries, are eyeing the untold mineral wealth of asteroids and the opportunity of a new mining ‘gold rush’ for which the old ways will not suffice.

Neatly juxtaposed with the Sputnik anniversary is the first birthday of Asgardia, the world’s first ‘space nation’ which is also about to mark its presence in orbit with the launch of its
inaugural satellite.

In all of these ventures judicious leadership and governance are vitally important. By the same token, we are all part of the whole and hold individual keys to our own destinies. And, as we recall the anniversary of the first Earth orbiting satellite, it means we can all be part of the future in whichever way we choose.

This article was first published as the Editorial to the Autumn 2017 edition of ROOM - The Space Journal for which Clive Simpson is the Managing Editor.

Wednesday, 11 October 2017

Bright lights in the sky

The Chelyabinsk asteroid over Russia in February 2013.
THERE'S been significant worldwide media interest in tomorrow morning’s flyby of asteroid 2012 TC4, which will make an unusually close pass to Earth at a distance of just 43,780 km -  that’s well inside the orbit of the Moon and closer than some satellites.

"We know the orbit of TC4 well enough to be absolutely certain that it won't hit Earth," assures Paul Chodas, manager of the Center for Near-Earth Object Studies (CNEOS) at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California,"but we haven't established its exact path just yet."

The chunk of space rock is about as big (in the range of 10-20 m diameter) as the famous 2013 Chelyabinsk object which hit Earth without warning as the sun  rose over Russia’s Ural mountains on 15 February 2013.

As the space rock skimmed into the atmosphere the early morning sky lit up with a second ‘sun’ as shock waves shattered windows in hundreds of buildings around the wakening city.

It had impacted Earth literally ‘out of the blue’, flying in from the direction of the sun where no telescope could see it - and it took everyone by surprise.

Years later, meteorite hunters are still finding pieces of the ‘Chelyabinsk asteroid’ that rained down after its 17 m-wide body disintegrated in the atmosphere.

The difference with 2012 TC4, which could be up to 30 m wide, is that NASA knows it's coming. At 07:41 CEST (Central European Summer Time) tomorrow morning (12 October) it will pass 43,500 km above Earth’s surface, about 1/8th the distance to the Moon.

The flyby is so close, gravity will significantly alter the asteroid's trajectory before it exits the Earth-Moon system.

To get a better handle on the asteroid's orbit (and possible future encounters), an international network of telescopes will monitor 2012 TC4 as it speeds by.

Pinging the asteroid with its Goldstone telescope, NASA also hopes to learn much about the space rock's physical properties.

This asteroid is too small to see with the naked eye. However, skilled amateur astronomers using small telescopes will be able to observe it. At peak brightness, 2012 TC4 will shine like a 13th magnitude star as it zips through the constellations Capricornus and Sagittarius.

The house-sized space rock does afford space agencies across the globe an opportunity to test some of their planetary defence scenarios that might be needed if Earth was in the path of a more dangerous asteroid.

If an asteroid the size of TC4 or slightly bigger was on course to hit a populated area, agencies such as the ESA and NASA would look to warn people and work with relevant governments to potentially start an evacuation.

If anything signifcantly bigger the TC4 is ever detected, much more drastic action might be needed, including the possibility of trying to deflect any such asteroid before it collides with Earth.

Friday, 29 September 2017

On Earth as it is on Mars

The UAE (United Arab Emirates) confirmed plans this week to build a city called ‘Mars Scientific City’, a US$135 million (Dh500 million) project that will simulate life on the red planet on Earth.

The announcement was made on the first day of the Annual Government Meetings in Abu Dhabi and also coincided with the International Astronautical Congress (IAC) being held in Adelaide, Australia. Dubai will host the IAC in 2020.

The high-tech city will cover 1.9 million square feet, making it the largest space-simulation city ever built, providing a viable and realistic model to simulate living on the surface of Mars.

The project encompasses laboratories for food, energy and water, as well as agricultural testing and studies about food security in the future.

It will also include a museum displaying humanity’s greatest space achievements, including educational areas to engage young citizens with space and inspire a passion in them for exploration and discovery. The walls of the museum will be 3D printed, using sand from the UAE desert.

"We are seeking a better life and education as well as a stronger economy and the internationally most sophisticated infrastructure for generations to come," said His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai.

The Mars Science City project falls within the UAE’s objectives to lead the global scientific race to take people to Mars and is part of the country’s Mars 2117 Strategy which seeks to build the first settlement on Mars in the next 100 years.

The project seeks to attract the best scientific minds from around the world in a collaborative contribution in the UAE to human development and the improvement of life. It also seeks to address global challenges such as food, water and energy security on Earth.

The plan for the Mars Science City project includes an experiential element, which will involve a team living in the simulated red planet city for one year, involving a range of experiments are to be devised, which will lead to innovation around self-sufficiency in energy, water and food.

The Mars Science City structure will be the most sophisticated building in the world and will incorporate a realistic simulation environment replicating the conditions on the surface of Mars.

The city will consist of several domes, with innovative construction techniques providing support for the structures. A team of Emirati scientists, engineers and designers, led by a team from the Mohammad Bin Rashid Space Centre and Dubai Municipality, will carry out the project, in cooperation with internationally renowned architects.

Friday, 18 August 2017

An inconvenient BBC

Perhaps I should not have been quite so astounded to hear on the BBC’s Radio 4 Today programme a week ago Lord Lawson, the former Conservative chancellor, being wheeled out again in the interests of so-called ‘balance’ on a climate change story.

In response to an interview with Al Gore an hour or so earlier, Nigel Lawson was largely unchallenged as he pedalled a series of untruths disguised as fact.

Despite overwhelming scientific opinion that human-induced climate change is heating up the atmosphere, melting glaciers and raising sea levels, Lawson was yet again given a prime slot by the BBC to shout down evidence in an unsubstantiated way.

He lightly dismissed the former US Vice-President Al Gore film The Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power saying it had "bombed" at the box office a week before it even went on general release (in the UK from today), adding that he would not "bother seeing it" either.

Listeners to BBC radio’s flagship news programme also heard Lawson, Britain’s most renown climate science sceptic, claim global temperatures have not been rising in recent years.

It was a lie which went completely unchallenged by the interviewer Justin Webb even though Lawson’s think tank, the Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF), was forced to admit immediately after the broadcast that the statement was based on data from an "erroneous" temperature chart.

Gore’s latest film describes how climate change is already having a significant effect on our planet but also says that the plunging cost of renewable energy might offer a viable solution.

The film points out the world’s average temperature has hit the highest on record for three years in a row – 2014, 2015 and 2016 – and highlights a significant increase in global extreme weather events.

But in his BBC interview Lord Lawson claimed that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) had "confirmed that there has been no increase in extreme weather events".

He then added: "As for the temperature itself, it is striking, he [Gore] made his previous film 10 years ago, and to the official figures during this past 10 years, if anything, mean global temperature, average world temperature, has slightly declined."

Afterwards the GWPF revealed the source of these supposedly ‘official’ figures was a meteorologist who works for a libertarian think tank, the Cato Institute, founded by US billionaire and leading climate sceptic, Charles Koch.

For the UK’s leading broadcaster, there are worrying parallels between the BBC’s ‘balanced’ or ‘impartial’ coverage of climate change and other major issues of the day, such as Brexit.

Today, it is Nigel Lawson being portrayed as a so-called expert on climate change. Tomorrow, it is po-faced, right-wing Tories such as Ian Duncan-Smith, Liam Fox and Jacob Rees-Mogg intelligently moving the Brexit agenda towards a cliff-edge clean break.

In a sense the BBC’s policy of ‘impartiality’ is actually giving credence and currency to more extreme views and, because of this, we are inadvertently being fed a distorted reality, which some would call ‘fake news’. Either way this is ultimately is going to be a disaster for us all.

Monday, 12 June 2017

Spy satellite buzzes ISS

AMATEUR satellite observers are keeping a close eye on a US National Reconnaissance Office classified satellite (USA 276) to see whether it returns to the vicinity of the International Space Station (ISS).

After its launch into orbit from Cape Canaveral by SpaceX on 1 May 2017 analysts around the world quickly realised it was doing something more unusual.

Its orbit was similar to that of the Space Station and so could theoretically make close approaches to the orbiting outpost.

Then, just over a month after launch on 3 June, that is exactly what happened. "USA 276 made a close approach and effectively circled the ISS," reported satellite bserver Marco Langbroek of Leiden, The Netherlands. 

Amateur satellite watchers have been tracking USA 276 since late May and their observations have resulted in ever-improving estimates of the satellite's orbit. 

"With the latest data included, we can establish the moment of closest approach as 3 June 2017, 14:01:52 UT. It happened in daylight over the southern Atlantic north of the Falklands, near 43.75 S, 45.45 W, with a miss distance of only 6.4 ± 2 km,” says Langbroek.

In the accompanying chart (prepared by Langbroek) showing the circumstances of the encounter, the brick-coloured box has dimensions of  4 x 4 x 10 km and normally, whenever an object looks like it is going to pass through the box, ISS mission controllers evaluate the possibility of a collision avoidance manoeuvre.

"USA 276 remained just outside the 4 x 4 x 10 km box at closest approach and as a result collision avoidance manoeuvres were not required,” adds Langbroek.

Diagram prepared by Marco Langbroek showing encounter.
The question arises as to why a US spy satellite buzzed the ISS and senior satellite analyst Ted Molczan has published arguments for and against that possibility. "I am inclined to believe that the close conjunctions between USA 276 and the ISS are intentional," he says.

Molczan points out that USA 276 might be visiting the ISS to test Raven - a technology demonstration project on the ISS researchers are using to develop spacecraft autopilot systems.  Raven has visible, infrared and lidar sensors that can track incoming spacecraft, feeding the data to an onboard processor for decision-making about rendezvous and docking.

"I imagine that USA 276 could add to the Raven data set as follows," speculates Molczan. "If it can rendezvous, then it could keep station for long periods, during which it could change its attitude to present the sensors with a variety of views, under a variety of lighting conditions. The total data collected could potentially far exceed that from the other visiting spacecraft."

Another way of looking at the problem, is to ask why, if the ISS is not a target of USA 276, would the highly secretive NRO have permitted a launch so close to its plane, let alone one that yielded such close conjunctions not long after launch, which could only have increased public interest in the mission?

USA 276 looped around the ISS, according to an analysis.
Langbroek says he does not believe for a moment that the NRO was not aware that the launch on 1 May would lead to the ISS close approach a month later. “It would be extremely sloppy of them - from a Space Situational Awareness (SSA) viewpoint - if they were not aware, especially given how close the orbital parameters are to that of the ISS.”

He adds: “This event was sure to attract attention which harms the classified character of the mission. USA 276 is relatively bright and the approach was bound to be noted by independent observers.

“Indeed, some space enthusiasts in Europe unaware of the issue who were out to spot Dragon CRS-11 and Cygnus OA-7 close to the ISS on 4 June, did accidentally see USA 276 passing some three minutes in front of it.

At the time of the launch - and at the request of the NRO -SpaceX cut off launch coverage two minutes and 48 seconds after liftoff, some 30 seconds after the booster’s first-stage separated from the upper-stage. The NRO has declined to provide further details about the satellite or its orbit.

Langbroek also speculates that such a close approach of a high profile object like the ISS is politically risky too.

“As the ISS is an international cooperation which includes two parties (the United States and the Russian Federation) that are currently geopolitically on an uneasy footing, sending your military payload so close to the ISS as one party is eyebrow raising,” he says.

Friday, 2 June 2017

Space industry's Brexit fears

ESA's Jan Worner at the opening of UKSC in Manchester this week
AN AIR of confidence and normality prevailed at the fourth biennial UK Space Conference (UKSC) in Manchester this week despite its rather awkward juxtaposition between the city's terrorist atrocity and the country's unexpected general election.

But scratch a little deeper amongst delegates and exhibitors and there was one over-riding business concern just under the surface - the potential impact of 'Brexit' on the future of the industry.

Last June's referendum result seems to have been universally unpopular across both the rapidly growing UK space industry itself and in academic circles more generally.

So it was no surprise that speakers not constrained by pre-election 'purdah' rules took the opportunity during the opening plenary to have their say.

Speaking to more than 1200 British and European space experts at UKSC, Richard Peckham, head of trade organisation Ukspace and director of strategy for Airbus Defence & Space, raised the prospect of Brexit damaging the buoyant and expanding sector.

His general tone was that a 'hard’ or ‘no deal’ Brexit delivered by a future [Tory] government could seriously affect the UK’s £14 billion a year space industry, which is estimated to contribute around £250 billion a year across the British economy. 
“Research-based academia and industry here and in Europe are completely entwined with goods, services, data and people crossing borders and I don’t think I’ve met anybody in the space industry or academia who wanted Brexit. Uncharted waters lie ahead,” he said.

“The space industry sees many challenges ahead as we navigate ourselves as a nation out of the European Union with the potential for major disruption to our businesses if things go badly.”

Mr Peckham described the most immediate threat as continued participation in the EU’s Galileo navigation and Copernicus Earth observation programmes, as well as Govsatcom (communications), IRIS (air traffic management) and SSA/SST (space debris).

“Our industry is already feeling the pain, especially as customers and suppliers in other nations are making contingency plans for the worst case in which British companies become ineligible for future contracts, and are planning to exclude British companies now just to be on the safe side,” he added.

“To be realistic there are some other countries out there who will see this as an opportunity to take work from the UK and I would urge government not to approach these negotiations in such an adversarial manner.”

Earlier Graham Tunnock, appointed chief executive of the UK Space Agency (UKSA) on 1 April, said election rules allowed him to attend the conference but restricted his comments on future government space policy.

Jan Worner, European Space Agency (ESA) director general, reminded delegates that at last year’s ministerial meeting the UK had committed €1.4 billion to ESA’s budget until 2020 and he urged the UK to remain a strong member of the ESA community.

“Brexit is happening and you have made a decision which I do not like,” he said. “UK membership of ESA is not at all in question but of course a future exchange rate might have an effect in the future.”

He also said it would be vital to find a solution for the ESA family members living and working in the UK from other countries.

 “I understand the politicians will be discussing a divorce between London and Brussels but in any divorce there are the children and in that respect we are the children,” he added.

The UK space trade association presented a ‘facts and figures’ document and urged British delegates to lobby their MPs on behalf of the space industry.

“The decision to leave the EU has created significant uncertainty and could impact the efficiency of the integrated supply chain, R&D collaboration and joint programmes with other countries,” it stated.

Five key requests for the Brexit negotiations are listed:
  • Retain full access to vital EU space programmes
  • Avoid UK industry being marginalised during Brexit process 
  • Retain access to and influence in the collaborative R&D programmes run by the EU
  • Maintain access to the EU pool of skilled labour which is required to maintain UK competitiveness
  • Keep frictionless access to the EU single market without burdensome customs and administration.
The UK space industry is currently showing growth of around seven percent a year and provides jobs for around 40,000 people.

Prior to any notion that the UK might leave the EU, the Space Innovation and Growth Strategy (IGS) set an ambitious target to increase Britain's share of the global space economy form six to 10 percent by 2030, raising revenue to £40 billion a year and potentially creating more than 100,000 skilled jobs.

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

No time to lose

Photo: Clive Simpson
POLITICAL hot air was a major feature across the world in 2016 as governments and electorates began to shift significantly on their axis of travel - now confirmation has come that it was also a year of record breaking global temperatures, exceptionally low sea ice and unabated sea level rise and ocean heat.

Issuing its annual statement on the State of the Global Climate ahead of World Meteorological Day today (21 March), the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) said extreme weather and climate conditions have continued into 2017.

Its report, based on multiple international datasets maintained independently by global climate analysis centres and information submitted by dozens of WMO and research institutes, is regarded as an authoritative source of reference.

Because the social and economic impacts of climate change have become so important, WMO partnered with other United Nations organisations for the first time to include information on these impacts.

“This report confirms that the year 2016 was the warmest on record – a remarkable 1.1C above the pre-industrial period and 0.06C above the previous record set in 2015. This increase in global temperature is consistent with other changes occurring in the climate system,” said WMO secretary-general Petteri Taalas.

“Globally averaged sea surface temperatures were also the warmest on record, global sea levels continued to rise and Arctic sea-ice extent was well below average for most of the year,” he added..

“With levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere consistently breaking new records, the influence of human activities on the climate system has become more and more evident,” said Mr Taalas.

The increased power of computing tools and the availability of long term climate data have made it possible today, through attribution studies, to demonstrate clearly the existence of links between man-made climate change and many cases of high impact extreme events in particular heatwaves.

Each of the 16 years since 2001 has been at least 0.4C above the long-term average for the 1961-1990 base period, used by WMO as a reference for climate change monitoring. Global temperatures continue to be consistent with a warming trend of 0.1 C to 0.2C per decade, according to the WMO report.

The powerful 2015/2016 El Niño event boosted warming in 2016, on top of  long-term climate change caused by greenhouse gas emissions. Temperatures in strong El Niño years, such as 1973, 1983 and 1998, are typically 0.1 C to 0.2C warmer than background levels, and 2016’s temperatures are consistent with that pattern.

Global sea levels rose very strongly during the El Niño event, with the early 2016 values reaching new record highs.  Global sea ice extent dropped more than 4 million square kilometres below average in November, an unprecedented anomaly for that month.

The very warm ocean temperatures contributed to significant coral bleaching and mortality was reported in many tropical waters, with important impacts on marine food chains, ecosystems and fisheries.

Carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere reached the symbolic benchmark of 400 parts per millions in 2015 – the latest year for which WMO global figures are available – and will not fall below that level for many generations to come because of the long-lasting nature of CO2.

Among some of the most extreme events in 2016 were severe droughts that brought food insecurity to millions in southern and eastern Africa and Central America. Hurricane Matthew caused widespread suffering in Haiti as the first category four storm to make landfall since 1963, and inflicted significant economic losses in the United States of America, while heavy rains and floods affected eastern and southern Asia.

Newly released studies, which are not included in WMO’s report, indicate that ocean heat content may have increased even more than previously reported.  Provisional data also indicates that there has been no easing in the rate of increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations.

“Even without a strong El Niño in 2017, we are seeing other remarkable changes across the planet that are challenging the limits of our understanding of the climate system. We are now in truly uncharted territory,” said World Climate Research Programme director David Carlson.  

At least three times so far this winter, the Arctic has witnessed the Polar equivalent of a heatwave, with powerful Atlantic storms driving an influx of warm, moist air. This meant that at the height of the Arctic winter and the sea ice refreezing period, there were days which were actually close to melting point. Antarctic sea ice has also been at a record low, in contrast to the trend in recent years.

Scientific research indicates that changes in the Arctic and melting sea ice is leading to a shift in wider oceanic and atmospheric circulation patterns. This is affecting weather in other parts of the world because of waves in the jet stream – the fast moving band of air which helps regulate temperatures. 

Thus, some areas, including Canada and much of the USA, were unusually balmy, whilst others, including parts of the Arabian peninsula and North Africa, were unusually cold in early 2017.

In the USA alone, 11,743 warm temperature records were broken or tied in February, according to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Prolonged and extreme heat in January and February  affected New South Wales, southern Queensland, South Australia and northern Victoria, and saw many new temperature records.

Andrew Challinor, Professor of Climate Impacts at the University of Leeds, said: “The trend in extremes continues – as anyone shopping for salads and veg earlier this year will know. This new evidence comes just days after parliament discussed the independent report they commissioned on the implications of climate change for UK food security.

“Current government strategy emphasises the ability of markets to even out price fluctuations and ensure food supply. The independent report emphasises the need for more joined up thinking across governments and internationally.”

Prof Sir Robert Watson, Director of Strategic Development at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, University of East Anglia, said: “While the data show an ever increasing impact of human activities on the climate system, the Trump Administration and senior Republicans in Congress continue to bury their heads in the sand and state that climate change is a hoax and does not need to be addressed. We are now living in an evidence-free world, where facts are irrelevant.

“Our children and grandchildren will look back on the climate deniers and ask how they could have sacrificed the planet for the sake of cheap fossil fuel energy when the cost of inaction exceeds the cost of a transition to a low-carbon economy.

“How much more evidence does the world need to recognise the dangers confronting our society? The pledges of the Paris agreement are inadequate to limit human-induced climate change to 2C and need to be strengthened significantly – there is no time to lose.”

Friday, 3 March 2017

"Brexit - we have a problem!"

The British government announced this week the intriguing appointment of life-long and passionate youth hosteller Graham Tunnock to head up the UK Space Agency (UKSA).

Mr Tunnock, in stark contrast to his predecessor Dr David Parker, has apparently no previous space industry experience and is being drafted in from the relative obscurity of the ‘Better Regulation Executive’, a demure unit buried within the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, where he was Chief Executive.

His new post, which he takes up on 1 April 2017, will undoubtedly be higher profile as he guides UKSA through the turbulent and uncharted waters of Brexit and beyond.

On the face of it, Brexit should have no impact on the UK’s role and contributions to ESA as the agreement and working relationship is largely outside of the EU. At least that is the argument for now.

Perhaps a bigger long term issue in terms of Brexit fallout for UK space might be that of ‘mission creep’. As well as being outside the European Single Market, there is a suggestion that the UK could leave the Customs Union, the European Convention on Human Rights and Euratom (legally distinct from the EU but is governed by it).

Stormy waters may well lie ahead for any organisation linked to Europe and, given the many unknowns ahead, it is certainly not clear where this might end, especially if those on the political right for whom the word ‘Europe’ is an anathema get their way.

Graham Tunnock, new head of the UK Space Agency
Perhaps it is not surprising therefore that Theresa May’s government has chosen to appoint a relative ‘space neutral’ at this time, someone who might be more comfortable with regulations and procedures than the technical details of a space programme that succeeds through close European cooperation.

A brief delve onto the Internet delivers a relatively ‘lite’ online footprint for Mr Tunnock. Nothing on LinkedIn, for example, and in Google his name is immediately associated with the Youth Hostel Association (YHA) and not much else, unless he is connected to the family of Tunnock’s teacake* fame.

“Graham is a lifelong hosteller”, begins the entry about him on the YHA website. “He was quickly bitten by the bug on family holidays and soon started hostelling independently with his brother and friends in his teens, his passion for hostelling developing alongside another great enthusiasm of his life, cycling. He has continued to hostel in adult life and a personal highlight is the annual YHA weekend he organises for his cycling club.”

Quite a contrast to the previous long-term and passionate space proponent Dr David Parker who brought with him a wealth of relevant space experience and contacts when he took up the post in 2013. Dr Parker is now Director of Human Spaceflight and Robotic Exploration with ESA.

On leaving he was able to cite many recent advances in UK space policy, including the 25% increase in UK funding of ESA made at its Council of Ministers in 2012 as probably having the biggest impact.

One of his proudest moments was in July 2015 when ESA moved into the European Centre for Satellite Applications and Telecommunications (ECSAT), a superb new facility at Harwell in Oxfordshire.

“This was a project that I lived with since 2008 and it was an emotional moment to see the flags of all the ESA member states raised in honour on UK soil for the first time. For me, it symbolised the UK anchored in ESA, and ESA anchored in the UK,” he said.

Announcing his successor’s permanent appointment on 1 March, a UKSA statement said Mr Tunnock had “extensive experience across Whitehall and at a European level, having also worked in the European Commission and held several other posts in the UK Civil Service”.

It went on: “He will be responsible for realising the agency’s aims of increasing the size of the UK space industry, using space to understand planet Earth and the universe, supporting British businesses to deliver practical help to developing countries and overseeing the Agency’s plans to establish commercial spaceflight in the UK.”

Whilst management of UK space interests related to manufacturing and assembly of spacecraft and satellites, their systems and subsystems ought not to be affected by Brexit, in reality the British space industry is strongly tied to pan-European consortia. Tunnock’s experience in handling ‘regulation’ might just come in handy.

Still, given the many unknowns still to be unravelled, it is highly likely that a future roadmap of UK participation in European space will be influenced by the shape of post-Brexit UK and its relations, good or bad, with the rest of Europe.

The present situation will evolve in some way simply because the economic profile of the UK will be different - though the magnitude of change is likely to be contingent on the terms of the negotiated settlement and the new political climate. In turn, this may well influence decisions taken in Europe about the amount of work shared out to consortia facilities in respective ESA member states.

There is also a question mark over the increasing interests of the EU itself in space programmes and policy. For example, full involvement in Europe’s Galileo satellite navigation programme, an EU-led space project, might be at risk following Brexit unless a specific agreement is reached.

European Galileo satellites.
Basic services from the Galileo satellites are available to all but use of the encrypted, robust Public Regulated Service (PRS) designed for government-authorised users - such as fire brigades and the police - may be restricted to those outside of the EU.

Whatever the post-Brexit shape of the UK, the necessary readjustment of the domestic economy along with newly placed priorities at government level may eventually change the level of support - and thus the amount of money available - for national and international projects and programmes, including those of ESA.

So far, the government has indicated it is fully committed to supporting the country’s robust and expanding aerospace sector, one of the strongest growing sectors in UK investment and revenue.

Although British civil servants traditionally remain neutral of government policy, it has already been suggested that some new appointees across government departments are being selected partly on the grounds that their personal views are more sympathetic to the political aims of Brexit.

Only time will tell whether there was any such motive behind the appointment of Graham Tunnock as chief executive of UKSA and, if so, the effects this might ultimately have on the British space industry.

Despite assurances to the contrary, a post-Brexit Britain may not sit so comfortably with Europe’s space ambitions, particularly if the EU becomes more involved. One way or another our hugely successful space industry looks set to have a fight on its hands.

*Tunnock’s teacakes are a traditional English biscuit (soft marshmallow on a biscuit base coated in milk chocolate) developed by family bakers who first started trading in the 1890s.

Thursday, 26 January 2017

NFU flood risk strategy

Photo: Clive Simpson

Farmers in Lincolnshire have a key role to play in flood management – but the Government must ensure that measures to address flood risk are properly funded, the NFU (National Farmers' Union) said today.

The call comes in the NFU’s 'Flood Manifesto', launched at Westminster in London just two weeks after communities, properties and productive farmland along the UK's east coast were threatened by a storm surge.

The manifesto urges the Government to adopt a ‘plan, protect and pay’ approach as part of a long-term strategic blueprint for flood and coastal risk management.

NFU East Midlands’ Environment Adviser, Paul Tame says: “The response to the storm surge earlier this month was an excellent example of local and national authorities, emergency services and communities working together in the face of a significant flooding threat.

“We want to see more of this joint working as we plan for long-term challenges, an approach that will include more decisions made at a local level, including devolving responsibilities to Internal Drainage Boards (IDBS) where the Environment Agency is no longer fully funded to carry out maintenance.

“There also needs to be proper assessment of the value of agriculture when looking at flood management. This is crucially important in Lincolnshire, where so much highly productive farmland is at risk of flooding.

“And where agricultural land is part of the solution to flooding, such as providing flood water storage, this must be planned, agreed and paid for.”

The manifesto lists recent flooding events that have affected agriculture, including the winter of 2013 and 2014 when about 45,000 hectares of agricultural land were flooded, at a cost to the sector of £19 million. This included more than 1,000 hectares in Lincolnshire.

NFU Deputy President Minette Batters said: “British farming provides the raw ingredients for an industry worth £108 billion to the UK economy, which also provides 3.9 million jobs.

“It’s the bedrock of the food industry, feeding the nation and playing a part in feeding the world. Some of our most productive and highest value agricultural land lies in floodplains or coastal regions, vulnerable to flooding, and deserves to be protected.

“In short, the Government’s strategy to manage future flood risk must be to plan, protect and pay.”

Photo: Clive Simpson
Improving coastal flood defences is vital to protect agricultural land and rural communities from tidal surges and rising sea levels.

Whilst the frequency of coastal flooding events is lower than fluvial events, the impacts of them can be catastrophic to agriculture. Many low lying areas on the East coast of England, which are vulnerable to storm surge events, are also some of the country’s most productive land.

Lincolnshire, an area affected by the 1953 and 2013 storm surges, produces 25 per cent of all UK-grown vegetables, supports an agri-food industry worth £1 billion annually. Saline water intrusion can lead to long-term reductions in productivity, and large costs in restoring the land. The county is also home to 225, 000 people and handles a high proportion of UK offshore gas imports.

Improving coastal flood defences is vital to protect agricultural land and rural communities from tidal surges and rising sea levels. Funding for coastal defence activities must consider the long-term implications of the inundation of saline water on some of England’s most important and productive agricultural land.

Wednesday, 25 January 2017

Climate change accelerates

Photo: Clive Simpson

Europe’s regions are facing rising sea levels and more extreme weather, such as more frequent and more intense heatwaves, flooding, droughts and storms due to climate change, according to a European Environment Agency (EEA) report published today.

The report assesses the latest trends and projections on climate change and its impacts across Europe and finds that better and more flexible adaptation strategies, policies and measures will be crucial to lessen these impacts.

Temperatures in mountain ranges such as the Alps and the Pyrenees are predicted to soar to glacier-melting levels, while the Mediterranean faces a ‘drastic’ increase in heat extremes, droughts, crop failure and forest fires.

Hans-Martin Füssel, a lead author of the EEA report, said that scientific evidence was pointing increasingly to a speeding up in the pace of climate change.

“We have more data confirming that sea-level rise is accelerating,” he said. “It is not a linear trend, largely due to increased disintegration of ice sheets. There is also new evidence that heavy precipitation has increased in Europe. That is what is causing the floods. Climate projections are coming true.”

Earlier this month, NASA, NOAA and the UK Met Office confirmed that 2016 had broken the record for the hottest year ever - previously held by 2015, which had itself broken the record that had been set in 2014.

Hans Bruyninckx, the director of the EEA, says there was now “not a snowball’s chance in hell” of limiting global warming to 2C without the full involvement of the US, which has just elected a climate-sceptic president.

Europe’s thermal growing season is now 10 days longer than in 1992, with delays to the end of the season more dramatic than the advance of its start. In countries such as Spain, warmer conditions are expected to shift crop cultivation to the winter.

New records continue to be set on global and European temperatures, sea levels and reduced sea ice in the Arctic. Precipitation patterns are changing, generally making wet regions in Europe wetter and dry regions drier. Glacier volume and snow cover are decreasing.

At the same time, climate-related extremes such as heat waves, heavy precipitation and droughts, are increasing in frequency and intensity in many regions. Improved climate projections provide further evidence that climate-related extremes will increase in many European regions.

“The scale of future climate change and its impacts will depend on the effectiveness of implementing our global agreements to cut greenhouse gas emissions, but also ensuring that we have the right adaptation strategies and policies in place to reduce the risks from current and projected climate extremes,” adds Bruyninckx.

All European regions are vulnerable to climate change, but some regions will experience more negative impacts than others. Southern and south-eastern Europe is projected to be a climate change hotspot, as it is expected to face the highest number of adverse impacts.

This region is already experiencing large increases in heat extremes and decreases in precipitation and river flows, which have heightened the risk of more severe droughts, lower crop yields, biodiversity loss and forest fires. More frequent heat waves and changes in the distribution of climate-sensitive infectious diseases are expected to increase risks to human health and well-being.

Coastal areas and flood plains in western parts of Europe are also seen as hotspots as they face an increased risk of flooding from rising sea levels and a possible increase in storm surges. Climate change is also leading to major changes in marine ecosystems as a result of ocean acidification, warming and the expansion of oxygen-depleted dead zones.

The report is intended to spur Europe’s sluggish moves towards adaptation strategies for dealing with the impacts of climate change, ahead of an EU review later this year.