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Archives for January 2011

Using space to navigate our way to growth

Jonathan Amos | 08:25 UK time, Friday, 28 January 2011


The European Commission uses a very interesting statistic in support of its proposed satellite navigation system, Galileo.

It appeared with the "mid-term review [200KB]" of the project and the assessment of the future cost to complete the network's infrastructure - a further 1.9bn euros on top of the already committed 3.4bn. The stat resulted in some discussion in the office. Here it is:

"It is estimated that currently 6-7% of GDP of developed countries, €800bn in Europe, depends on satellite navigation."

If correct, it's an astonishing figure. We started thinking of some high-value activities that might account for it, such as the big dealings on the money markets which can be stamped with GPS time; or what about the total value of goods on all container ships that use GPS as a navigation tool?

Galileo schematic

Galileo could be fully operational by the end of the decade, the mid-term review said

I asked the Commission to source and justify the figure. So far it hasn't got back to me. But even if the stat were wide of the mark by an order of magnitude, it would still be huge. It shouldn't really surprise us.

GPS has been an extraordinary driver of wealth [2MB PDF]. As I always say, consider just the co-founders of Garmin, manufacturers of personal navigation devices. Gary Burrell and Min Kao are both billionaires listed on the Forbes Top 400 list of the richest people in the US. And they made their fortunes before the era of modern smartphones that are all now shipped with a sat-nav chip.

The European Commission made clear in its Galileo mid-term review what most people had realised a long time ago - namely that Galileo of itself will generate very little income.

Revenues back to the system from its very accurate, highly restricted services, which will be provided to a relatively small group of customers (predominantly government agencies), will generate sums that might run into the tens of millions of euros annually - at best (Page 20 of the review).

As with GPS, the real value is to be found downstream in the wider economic activity that will ride off the back of Galileo's sat-nav signals, or to be more precise the enhanced capability that will come from having Galileo and GPS working in tandem and pushing each other forward.

In that sense, Galileo should be viewed like all those roads across Europe that have been built with money from Brussels. The benefit is not in the roads per se but in the economic vibrancy they've opened up in locations that previously had poor transportation links. The value of this return dwarfs the initial investment in layers of asphalt.

This week I met with Rosemary McClenaghan. She's a former social worker who now runs a taxi and chauffeur business on the outskirts of Belfast.

She had a very simple but brilliant idea. Wouldn't it be great if you could have an app on your phone that allowed you to call a taxi, see where the nearest vehicle was to you, follow its progress to your location, and be comfortable about getting into that cab because all the information about it (driver's name, vehicle make and model, license registration, etc) had already been sent to your phone?

Rosemary just had the vision. She's not a technologist, so she went to someone who is to help her turn that vision into reality.

The result is an iPhone app now being trialled in Belfast called TaxiZapp. Rosemary told me:

"The beauty of it is that it shows when the driver tells you he's on the way, you can actually see the driver on the map driving towards you. So, it's pinging his location all the time like sat-nav.
"They can't lie to you and say 'I'll be 10 minutes' because you can see where they are; and they can see where you are, too. They get your information as well. So if they have any difficulty - say they hit roadworks - they can actually call you. And all the details stay on your phone as well. If you arrive home and think 'I left something in the taxi', like your wallet or your camera, you can check who the driver was and get back in touch with them.
"At the moment it's just an iPhone app but you could use it on any internet-enabled phone by going to the web and using the system there, in which case the information gets sent to you via text message.
"The next most important thing for us is to get an Android app because a lot of the drivers are switching to Android phones because they are cheaper.
"For many people, it will be the safety factor, the reassurance. They will know all the driver's details and we make it easy from the application for you to quickly send those details to someone via email to say 'I've just got into this taxi with this person and here's all the details'."

The idea resulted in Rosemary becoming last year's Galileo Master, the UK winner in a pan-European competition to find innovative applications for location and timing data delivered from space.

Grace building

Grace is on the site of the old Raleigh factory

Her prize, officially awarded this week, is a cheque for £10,000, and some business and technical support to develop TaxiZapp further.

That support is coming from a shiny new centre in Nottingham called Grace.

The name is an acronym within an acronym, so bear with me. Grace stands for GNSS Research and Applications Centre of Excellence, where the GNSS stands for Global Navigation Satellite Systems.

Grace runs the spectrum from academic research to nestling start-up companies. It's not just concerned with sat-nav. Indeed, there's a lot of work going on inside the centre to tie together all sorts of geospatial information from a variety of motion sensors.

I heard about one application that could be used to follow the progress of firefighters into a burning building from small devices implanted in their boots.

Grace is there to foster smart ideas and help them get to market. Interestingly, it's built on the site of the famous old Raleigh bicycle factory. Raleigh produced cycles in the city for more than 100 years before moving that operation overseas to places like Vietnam.

Nottingham, like much of the UK and Europe, can no longer compete with the low-cost manufacturing done in Asia. What it can do instead, however, is pursue hi-tech, high-value activities.  All things connected with sat-nav are some of those activities. 

I'll be writing a lot about Galileo this year, not least because we will see the first two "pathfinders", as I call them, go into orbit.

More properly called the In Orbit Validation (IOV) models, these satellites will prove the Galileo sat-nav system works end-to-end.

Four spacecraft are needed to do this. The first two, with their British-assembled payloads, will launch on the first Soyuz to fly from the new Sinamary spaceport in French Guiana. The second pair should go up in early 2012.

Production of the next 14 operational satellites should begin mid-year in a new purpose-built factory facility in Guildford run by SSTL.

Chasing the dream of human spaceflight

Jonathan Amos | 08:28 UK time, Wednesday, 26 January 2011


Form follows function, they say. And if a machine works like a dream, perhaps it ought to look like one as well. Right?

Dream Chaser

The Dream Chaser could be in orbit by 2014

I have no data to support this hypothesis but it seems to hold, from iPhones to Ferraris. I'm sure you can find examples to the contrary. But consider Sierra Nevada Corporation's (SNC) proposed Dream Chaser vehicle. It looks like a spacecraft ought to look.

This is one of the key US commercial human spaceflight projects now in development. The Dream Chaser already has quite a bit of heritage.

The design calls on a concept initially studied by Nasa about 20 years ago called the HL-20. SNC's vehicle would launch vertically atop a rocket like the Atlas 5. It would carry a crew of seven.

Missions might include crew rotation and cargo re-supply at the International Space Station, but there would be other destinations and duties for an adaptable vehicle like this as well.

Sierra Nevada Corporation was given the biggest award ($20m) last February in Nasa's "seed fund" programme to develop a private crewship capability.

Known as the Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) Program, it will soon announce another, larger round of financing; and SNC expects to be at the front of the queue again. Mark Sirangelo, head of SNC Space Systems, told me:

"This next round of funding, if it holds and it gets awarded, will give us all another year to mature our designs and at that point those who have real programmes will stand out self-evidently.
"We'd like to go to the space station. It's not the only thing we can do but I think we have a lot of value there. At the moment, there is no logical way to take things home from the space station [after the shuttle retires]. We can take three people home on a Soyuz but all the science work that's being done up there doesn't have a way to come back. Our vehicle has a particular use for that.
"Not only can it take people back and forth, but the science experiments that are done at the ISS can come back in their racks in our vehicle, and instead of being subject to the very high g-forces of a capsule landing in the ocean or on the steppes of Kazakhstan - we land on a runway; we have less than 2g when we land. You can go right up to the vehicle when it stops, because we have no hazardous material onboard, and take those experiments straight off.
"So, we have a very unique capability to maintain all the science work going on up there. To the extent that we can make the ISS a very functioning laboratory and maintain the integrity of the work they want to bring back - that seems to be a very good use of our vehicle."

SNC used last year's Nasa money to further work on the hybrid rockets that will power the Dream Chaser.

Dream Chaser drop test

The drop test of a model Dream Chaser returned important aerodynamic data

It was able to show Nasa that it could run these motors for the sorts of durations demanded on a full mission, and, critically, demonstrate a stop-start capability. In the rocket business, re-igniting a motor in the vacuum of space is a big deal.

SNC also built the basic structure, or chassis, of the first flight vehicle, and conducted drop tests on a scaled model. These drop tests, begun from a height of 4,000m, returned important aerodynamic data.

At the turn of the year, we got an interesting joint announcement from SNC and Virgin Galactic, Sir Richard Branson's sub-orbital venture that will use a derivative of the SpaceShipOne craft to take fare-paying passengers on short hops above 100km.

SNC is building the rocket motors for Virgin's new craft, SpaceShipTwo (SS2). But, usefully, from SNC's point of view, the tie-up means the flight model of Dream Chaser can soon begin drop tests using the other part of Branson's project - the SS2's carrier plane known as WhiteKnightTwo. Mark Sirangelo again:

"We're building the Dream Chaser flight vehicle right now. Next year, we should be fully testing the vehicle with atmospheric tests. And we're expecting to be flying orbital flights by 2014, so about three years from now. Our whole testing programme has humans onboard. We're using existing [launchers] so we don't have to be designing that, and our vehicle had 10 years of design with Nasa and six years with us - so it's fairly mature as a vehicle.
"There are other things we could do apart from going to the space station. The ability to service things in space goes away when the space shuttle goes away as well - the ability to repair a satellite, or move it to a new orbit, or to do other work in space. We're seeing this much like a utility vehicle that you could outfit for special purposes.
"We would have an airlock; we could put robotic arms on the vehicle to be able to grab things and manipulate them, using the same structure. This would be much like how Boeing and Airbus re-focus their aeroplanes for cargo or for re-fuelling or for fire interdiction. We can do that. Using the same basic frame, we could have a people version, have a cargo version or a utility version."

Looking at the artist's impression of the Dream Chaser atop the Atlas, it reminds me of the European Hermes shuttle and the way it would have been launched on the Ariane 5 if Esa member states hadn't killed it off.

Mark Sirangelo says Dream Chaser would work very nicely off the top of an Ariane. Are you interested Europe?

Dream Chaser launches on an Atlas 5

The Dream Chaser would launch atop an Atlas 5, but could launch on other vehicles as well



Hello, Paolo. This is London calling!

Jonathan Amos | 16:58 UK time, Thursday, 13 January 2011


We think that because we have mobile phones in our pockets, communication is easy.
It's not always the case, but our live link with the International Space Station certainly seemed to work like a dream.

European Space Agency astronaut Paolo Nespoli came through loud and clear on the BBC World News Channel today.

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There was several seconds' delay, but that is normal.

To get a live link with the ISS requires the sound and video be sent on a rather circuitous route.

The event is co-ordinated from Mission Control in Houston, Texas. They establish the path up to and from the platform; a second leg then has to be set up with the participating TV station.

Holding a conversation requires a little patience because of the delay, but Paolo was in entertaining form, spinning himself around and squirting water into the weightless surroundings of Esa's Columbus laboratory.

We had some familiar questions about how you wash yourself in space, and how you get to sleep when you are floating; but we also had some really quite fascinating questions about what sort of weather systems were apparent from an altitude of 350km and, my favourite, about time-keeping on the station. It's London time, says Paolo:

"We actually use GMT time. We are a little bit shifted towards the Moscow time, so we do things a little bit earlier than if we were in London, but it's actually the London time [we use here]. It's true we are rotating around Earth so fast that every 90 minutes we have a sunrise or sunset - so 16 sunrises and sunsets per day.
"If you would be looking outside the window, you could get totally confused. But we actually synch our body-clock according to the working day, so we try to go to bed around 10, 11, midnight - wake up around six, and then we have the working day.
"It's still a little bit strange when in the middle of the day I look outside and it is pitch dark down on Earth, or it's time for me to go to bed and I look outside the window and it's sunny somewhere. It's shocking at the beginning but the body becomes adjusted pretty quickly."

Paolo is due to remain on the ISS until May. His mission is called MagISStra.

UK from ISS

Paolo Nespoli's view of the UK

The name combines the Latin word "magistra" for a female teacher, with the acronym of the International Space Station. He'll be performing 30-odd experiments during his stay on the ISS.

And as is always the case, he'll be doing a lot of educational and outreach work.

He's an ambassador for the international "Mission X: Train Like an Astronaut" project which is aimed at eight to 11-year-olds and encourages them to learn the basics of good health.

He's also taking part in the "Greenhouse in Space" initiative. He'll be growing plants on orbit and recording how they are doing, while schoolchildren grow the species of plant on the ground.

It will illustrate very neatly how gravity influences so many systems and processes we think we know so well.

If you haven’t caught his Tweets, you can follow them here. He’s also taking a stream of pictures of the Earth like the one of the UK on this page.

And the MagISStra home page can be found here.

'Astrophysical brass in the microwave muck'

Jonathan Amos | 10:30 UK time, Wednesday, 12 January 2011


One scientist's noise is another scientist's data, and this applies particularly to Europe's spectacular Planck space telescope.

Hurled to an observing position more than a million km from Earth, this observatory has been routinely scanning the sky now since August 2009. It’s on a grand quest.

Planck telescope


Its mission is to make the definitive map of the famous Cosmic Microwave Background, or CMB. Some call it the "afterglow" of the Big Bang; I like to think of it as the "oldest" or "first" light in the Universe. It fills the sky around us.

It comprises those photons, or particles, of light that were first allowed to sweep out across the cosmos once it had cooled sufficiently to form neutral hydrogen atoms.

Until that time, the photons bashed into free electrons at every turn; the Universe was opaque. Previous studies have indicated this "uncoupling" of radiation and matter occurred about 380,000 years after the moment of creation, or about 13.7 billion years ago if you are looking through our end of a telescope.

These ancient photons' first contact is with Planck's super-cold, super-sensitive instruments. That's an extraordinary thought. All that time, all that space; and it ends with the photons striking the telescope's detectors.

Planck views the sky at all its frequencies

Planck views the sky at nine frequencies. This allows it to pick apart - and eventually extract - the different components that obscure the CMB.  In these nine views, all you see is the "reject data".  

Scientists can identify tiny temperature variations in the CMB that give them insights into the early structure of the Universe and the blueprint for everything that came afterwards. All the structure we see around us today was set in motion by that initial framework.

Nasa's Cobe and WMap telescopes have already extracted a good deal of information from the CMB, and these efforts have rewarded a number of scientists with Nobel Prizes.

Esa's Planck observatory is designed to pull out every last detail, with the expectation also that it will generate "Swedish gongs".

As a consequence, Planck's data is jealously guarded. It’s one reason why announcements about the mission tend to be few and far between.

The last time the European Space Agency made a big song and dance about this flagship endeavour was back in the summer with the release of Planck's first all-sky map.

It was a stunning picture that found its way on to front pages across the globe (see bottom of posting). It contained some CMB information, carefully rendered so as not to give away any secrets, but the image was dominated by an obscuring foreground – largely light coming from our own galaxy, the Milky Way.

All of this foreground "contamination" has to be removed if scientists are to get a clear view of the CMB. And this week in Paris, the Planck Consortium (the hundreds of scientists working on the mission) published a great long list of these "rejected" sources of light in a vast catalogue.

I call it contamination, but of course this pollution is actually pure signal to the researchers who study these sources of light.

The catalogue contains thousands of items. Some are within our galaxy; others are much deeper in space.

They range from nearby ultra-cold clumps of gas and dust where future stars will form, to the diffuse light coming from galaxies shrouded in dust billions of years in the past, and which were forming stars at rates some 10 to 1,000 times faster than we see in our own Milky Way Galaxy today. Planck's project scientist Dr Jan Tauber told me: 

"All this light – the CMB, the closest galaxies, distant galaxies – is mixed up, and in order to do science we have to go through a process we call component separation. We have to split apart these components. And at the end of this process, which is basically a software process, we end up with different maps. The CMB, our ultimate objective, is one of the faintest signals in the sky and therefore one of the most difficult to extract. We can’t talk about it yet because we still need to work on the data quite a bit. But some of these other signals are very strong, like the ones coming from our own galaxy and we can start to talk about them now."

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The collection of nine all-sky maps on this page is what Planck sees in the nine frequencies across its two instruments.

AME as seen by Planck

Planck sees the spinning dust in a narrow frequency range, around 30GHz (red colour)

Studying these different frequencies allows the scientists to tease out what the different sources of contaminating light are and what they are doing.

With an eye on the British contribution to all this research, I'll pick up on one fascinating example referred to as "anomalous microwave emission" (AME).

It's a glow most strongly associated with the dense, dusty regions of our galaxy, and its origin has been a puzzle for decades. But the work by Clive Dickinson, from Manchester University, and colleagues has pretty much established now from the Planck data that this AME must be coming from dust grains that are spinning at several tens of billions of times a second. Extraordinary.

This furious behaviour is a result of collisions, either with other dust grains or with photons of ultraviolet light. Clive told me: 

"This emission seems to only emit in a narrow frequency range, around 30GHz, which is exactly the frequency range that the low-frequency instrument of Planck is observing. And although it's been observed before – we’ve known about it for a number of years now – Planck data have really allowed us to map it out and create very precise spectra of these dust regions. What we’re finding is that the only real possibility for this anomalous microwave emission is electric dipole emission from spinning dust grains. It sounds horribly complicated but basically these dust grains spin extremely quickly, so quickly that they end up emitting in the microwave regime. It's one of about four components that really confuses the CMB, and we need to understand it so we are able to subtract it and therefore clearly see the CMB."

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Planck continues to scan the sky. It hopes to picture everything around us five times over. This should be more than enough data to get a very clean picture of the CMB.

Planck's full-sky image

Planck's full-sky image released back in the summer. The gas and dust (blue/white) in our Milky Way Galaxy dominates the foreground. The CMB is seen in the magenta and yellow splodges behind

A new year in which to stretch the UK space pound

Jonathan Amos | 18:00 UK time, Monday, 10 January 2011


Any timeline of key UK space events in 2011 will have to include the start of the new financial year in April.

This is the point at which the new UK Space Agency formally comes into being, and with its own budget.

Planck artist's impression

The year will start from my point of view with an update from Europe's Planck space telescope

No longer does the body for co-ordinating space activity in Britain have to go cap in hand to government departments and research councils, looking for cash to run a programme.

Responsibilities previously scattered across Whitehall and Polaris House in Swindon (home to the research councils) are being passed to the UKSA along with their cash.

The two major exceptions are the Met Office and the money it pays to belong to Eumetsat, the pan-European organisation charged with operating the continent’s weather satellites; and oversight of the MoD’s Skynet satellite telecommunications system which is run by a private company. These stay outside the UKSA.

The recent allocation of science and research funding [500k PDF] for 2011/12 to 2014/15 saw the UKSA being given £769,685,000 (926,028,000 euros) for the period.  This is all programmatic money; administration is separate.  Also not included here is the capital allocation for the period of about £76m which covers buildings and hardware costs.

The programmatic budget equates to a little shy of £200m a year, although the money is slightly front-loaded because the agency has some large, immediate commitments, most notably funding the UK’s part of GMES, which is Europe’s big environmental monitoring project.

There is also money to offset exchange rate movements that have made membership of the European Space Agency (Esa) more expensive.

Set against the current baseline, the UKSA’s funding is projected to increase by about 109%. Inflation is quite strong at the moment so by 2014/15, the allocation will probably work out as a small cut in real terms.

This is the "flat cash" settlement the coalition promised to science; and compared with other areas of science, the UKSA has done better than average, as I predicted back in October.

This almost certainly reflects the recognition of the economic importance of space and what it can contribute to future growth. Industrially, this is a sector, remember, which is expanding and taking on people.

It is worth noting also that the UKSA now sits inside the science funding “ring fence”, which ought to mean its cash cannot be raided if there is a problem elsewhere in government.

A lot of people are still reflecting on the fact that science escaped the large cuts meted out to other areas of government-supported activity; there remains a sense of relief in the air. But you can be sure that as the months and years go by, the government will again be asked to demonstrate its commitment, especially if other nations continue to pump large sums of money into their science base.

Both France and Germany dwarf the UK in terms of space spending; their budgets are five times that of the UK, and they are increasing their budgets.

What is more, not only do France and Germany pay big sums into the European Space Agency (Esa), they have a large amount of money reserved for national programmes.

Once the UK has met its Esa subscription, there’s not a huge amount left in the tin.  UK space scientists and engineers, though, are masters at stretching a pound to make it do remarkable things.  

And so we gallop ahead. What am I looking forward to most? Well, I’ve got quite enough on my plate already this week, thank you. Tomorrow (Tuesday), we get the first big science results from Esa’s Planck telescope.

I’ve had a sneak preview and it’s impressive stuff.  British research is to the fore, too.

In fact, we’ll be focusing quite a bit on Esa this week at the BBC.

If you are in a part of the globe that can pick up the BBC World News Channel, you will be able to see our link-up with the International Space Station on Thursday at about 1415 GMT.

Tim Willcox will be talking live with Italian astronaut Paolo Nespoli. He will be showing viewers his new home and taking some questions.

I took part in an event with Paolo back in the summer at a science festival in Turin, and he is an excellent communicator. If you haven’t caught his Tweets, you can follow them here. He’s also taking a stream of pictures of the Earth.

The hope is we will also have the UK’s Esa astronaut-in-waiting Tim Peake in our studios; certainly the director of human spaceflight at Esa, Simonetta Di Pippo, will be there.

It will be a chance to find out where Europe thinks it is going with the ISS. Esa member-states are committed to the extension to 2020, but they’re some way off approving a budget to make it happen.  This matter is quite pressing now and something they really have to sort out in the next few months. 

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