BBC BLOGS - Today: Tom Feilden

Archives for April 2010

Hubble at 20

Tom Feilden | 11:45 UK time, Friday, 23 April 2010

Starburst galaxy M82

We've all marvelled at the incredible pictures - of exploding stars and galaxy clusters.

And if, like me, you're excited by the mysteries - and beauty - of space, they make for great screensavers (mine's currently of a starburst in the galaxy M82).

But the Hubble Space Telescope is about much more than pretty pictures of the cosmos. It has played a vital role in furthering our knowledge and understanding of the universe, and is widely regarded as the most successful piece of scientific equipment ever fired into space.

Launched by the space shuttle Discovery in 1990, Hubble was initially a bit of a disaster. A tiny spherical aberration in the telescope's primary mirror threatened to de-rail the whole project. Much of the fine detail in the first pictures beamed back to earth was blurred, and for a while the double decker bus sized instrument looked like claiming the prize for biggest white elephant ever launched into space.

All that changed in 1993 when the crew of the space shuttle Endeavour retrofitted an ingenious solution to the problem - effectively adding corrective spectacles to the telescope and counteracting the mirror's distortions.

That first servicing mission was an unqualified success, and the Hubble Space Telescope has been beaming back astonishing images of the Cosmos - including my screensaver - ever since.

It's impressive list of scientific achievements includes settling the age of the universe (at 13.7 billion years), establishing that massive black holes sit at the centre of most galaxies, and that the expansion of the universe is accelerating.

According to the President of the Royal Astronomical Society, Andy Fabian, Hubble is a hugely impressive instrument that has helped to usher in a "Golden Age" in astronomy.

"Lots of discoveries are being made. Really fundamental, basic discoveries, about what the universe is made of. Hubble is a playing a great role in all of this. It is a formidable scientific instrument, and it's a very exciting time to be doing astronomy".

The Cambridge astronomer and author of "Secrets of the Universe", Professor Paul Murdin goes even further, comparing the impact of Hubble to Galileo's decision 400 years ago to turn his telescope to the sky.

"What he saw changed our perception of the Universe. Hubble has done the same, and the genuine scientific achievements that have come out of the telescope have been outstanding".

After a total of 4 life-extending service missions Hubble is scheduled for decommissioning in 2014. By then its successor the James Webb Space Telescope should be up and running. But it will have some way to go to match Hubble's extraordinary success.

Is it safe?

Tom Feilden | 09:50 UK time, Monday, 19 April 2010

Road sign With the chaos caused by the eruption of Iceland's Eyjafjalla volcano entering a fifth day, the question airlines are beginning to ask is when they are going to be allowed back into the skies.

And while millions of passengers remain stranded all around the world by the huge plume of volcanic ash that has spread out across the Atlantic, western Europe and Russia, the costs keep mounting.

British Airways has put its losses at £25 million a day, and according to the International Air Transport Association the overall industry figure could be as high as £130m.

No wonder the airlines are beginning to question the regulatory system that has grounded commercial flights across much of Europe.

The Association of European Airlines, whose 36 members include British Airways and Virgin Atlantic, has called for an "immediate reassessment" of the restrictions after test flights reported no damage from ash.

Over the weekend KLM, Lufthansa and Air France put up more than 30 flights to see if corridors could be found through the ash. A BA flight out of Heathrow, carrying the company's chief executive Willie Walsh, also reported no problems.

The decision not to fly is based on an assessment made by nine Volcanic Ash Advisory Centres around the world and overseen by the UN's International Civil Aviation Organisation in Montreal (a system set up after the incident with a BA flight over Indonesia in 1982). In the UK the VAA Centre is based at the Met Office's London headquarters.

These Centres issue advice to national Governments, which retain sovereignty over their airspace, using a combination of data-gathering test flights and climate modelling of the volcanic ash plume to make an assessment of the risk. But, perhaps surprisingly, it turns out there's no official "parts-per-million" threshold above or below which it is or isn't safe to fly. It's a judgement call made by the VAAC.

Obviously no one wants to fly if there's any risk of an accident, but suspicion is mounting that this bureaucratic system is producing overly cautious advice.

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The problem is that - as with any cloud - the ash plume is not uniform. There are patches where the ash is much more dense, and other relatively clear areas. The test flights being operated by the Met Office are decked out with specialist equipment to measure these density fluctuations. Those being operated by the airlines are not.

So the fact that a conventional airliner can take off, fly around a bit, and then come back down unscathed, doesn't mean there aren't potential problems up there.

The Met Office are reporting pockets of ash that do pose a serious risk to planes - pockets those conventional planes would not be able to detect as they flew into them.

What now for the Royal Institution?

Tom Feilden | 09:58 UK time, Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Baroness Greenfield

So the members of the Royal Institution - or at least 81% of the 650 present at last night's meeting - have voted in favour of the Council, and against a proposal that would have lead to the reinstatement of Baroness Susan Greenfield as Director.

On the face of it, a ringing endorsement for the RI's chairman, Adrian de Ferranti. In a statement issued shortly after the meeting the Council said:

"We are delighted with the result and extremely pleased the members have given their support to the Council and staff. Now we can focus on bringing back the much-needed financial stability and strong scientific leadership that this great institution deserves."

The RI's need for financial stability is acute. During her 12 years at the helm Baroness Greenfield oversaw a £22 million renovation of the institution's 18th century Mayfair headquarters - complete with restaurant and bar - which was largely funded by selling off its property portfolio.

The results may look spectacular, but the restaurant and bar have failed to draw in the crowds, and the facelift - which included the refurbishment of the Director's grace-and-favour flat - has saddled one of the country's oldest and most distinguished scientific institution's with a crippling £2million operating deficit.

But it's the solution the RI came up with - to abolish the role of Director, and make Baroness Greenfield redundant - that has caused all the trouble, culminating in last night's vote.

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One former trustee, now chairwoman of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, Professor Lisa Jardine, said the RI had effectively decapitated itself.

"The institution has always had a high-profile scientist as its director. To get rid of the post suggests it has decided to commit suicide."

The decision to move forward without such a charismatic figurehead at the helm is a gamble. With rival institutions like the Royal Society, the Wellcome Trust and even the Science Museum all vying promote and popularise the field, the competition to lead British science into the 21st century is intense.

It has to be said that if aliens landed in central London tomorrow and demanded to be taken to our scientific leaders, it's unlikely that they would be lead up Albemarle street to the impressive Georgian façade of the Royal Institution.

The argument will continue over whether Baroness Greenfield's attempt to turn the RI into a "Groucho club" for science was misguided, but it's hard to see what role the institution can carve out for itself without a charismatic, high-profile scientist - a Humphry Davy or Michael Faraday - to provide the "strong scientific leadership" the Council claims it deserves.

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