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Archives for March 2011

The Sun rises on Chinese space science

Jonathan Amos | 22:00 UK time, Monday, 28 March 2011

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The world is changing, and fast. Take the new report from the Royal Society. It's called Knowledge, Networks and Nations: Global Scientific Collaboration in the 21st Century.

It examines how the emerging economies, led by China and followed by others such as Brazil and India, are challenging the "old order".

The pre-eminent scientific positions of the US, Western Europe and Japan are now being eroded on every front - in the number of scientific papers published, in citations made, and in patent applications. In terms of pure investment, the emerging economies are also pumping increasing funds into their labs and their science-based industries.

This blog is concerned with space, of course, and all of the above applies very much to this particular field of endeavour. But, as I say, where there is a challenge so there is an opportunity.

Prototype Chinese Moon rover

John Zarnecki (third from right) inspects a prototype Chinese Moon rover in 2007

That's the view certainly of Professor John Zarnecki from the UK's Open University.

John has had an amazing career at the pinnacle of British space science.

He's worked on a diverse group of missions, including Europe's Giotto probe which flew by Comet Halley in 1986, and on the development of Hubble.

He also led the surface science instrument team on Huygens, the European spacecraft that landed on Saturn's moon Titan in 2005. But he's felt the wind of change, also, and is heading to China for several months a year to start working on the Asian giant's space programme.

He's being given a lab, people and money to work on space instrumentation. There's a good chance the products of this work will end up on China's Chang'e programme, which is exploring the Moon.

So far, the Chinese have put two spacecraft in orbit around the lunar body. The future missions Chang'e 3, 4 and 5 will very likely land, rove and finally return rock samples to Earth.

This is not one of those classic "brain drain" stories; rather it's about chasing possibilities. John will still anchor himself in the UK and at the OU. He believes British and Chinese space interests can build a strong new partnership:

"Some people have put their heads in the sand about this, but China is coming. This is the last big project in my career, but what an opportunity to work with the Chinese on developing an instrument or package and sending it to the Moon or Mars!
Huygens image of Titan

Huygens made the most distant landing in the Solar System. John Zarnecki's instrument package probed Titan's surface

"They've offered me a visiting professorship at Beihang University, which is a new name for the Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics. They're strong on technology and very well connected with the Chinese space agency. We've had contacts with them for several years, but I've come to the conclusion that to make real progress then even more personal contact is needed; and so when this professorship came up, it was too good an opportunity to miss.
"The OU is encouraging me because, like a lot of UK universities, they recognise that China is the coming force and it's important to engage at all levels, from teaching to research. And whereas in the UK we are under tremendous pressure over resources, in China they're offering me a lab and giving me people.
"This year, I will be out there for about three months and then we'll see how it goes. I'm not signed up to a particular space mission, but I hope by being there I will be able to get on some great missions like Chang'e 3, 4 and 5. Here, we're talking about a lunar lander, a lunar rover and lunar sample return over the next three missions.
"And the really exciting thing is that when I started going there a few years ago, Mars was just a dream; it would feature in one slide at the end of a presentation from some of their senior people. Now, we get whole presentations on very detailed technical studies. I think the Chang'e 1 and 2 missions - the success of them, technically - have given the Chinese huge confidence that they really can do stuff.
"Now, China is very good on the technical side of things, but what they don't have is the 40 years' experience in space science that we have in the UK and Europe. That's what we can bring to them. And, you know, I see this as a win-win: I see this as the OU opening a lab in China, and I want to see Chinese students coming to Britain and British students going to China.
"Many of these kids will be the scientific leaders of tomorrow and if I can help bring them through, that will be fantastic."

The UK has done fantastically well in recent years with its space science partnerships with the US. Consider the recent Nasa missions launched to study the Sun - the Stereo spacecraft and the Solar Dynamics Observatory.

Britain provided a modest amount of scientific instrumentation and components, and in return got prime access to some cutting-edge data on our star.

It's the sort of access British researchers could never have got any other way because the UK simply does not have the budget to launch these kinds of missions on its own.

It looks increasingly likely that these opportunities will also now present themselves in China and India. Who'll grab opportunities?Chart from Royal Society report

The Royal Society report investigates the emergence of China and others as big scientific players


Visions of space separated by 22 miles

Jonathan Amos | 15:00 UK time, Thursday, 24 March 2011


Wednesday presented an excellent example of the challenges faced by science-based industries in the UK; and, in particular, the space sector.

In its Budget announcement, the London government singled out space as one of the key areas of commercial endeavour that would help pull the country out of its current economic woes.

Space is a fast growing sector – both in terms of value (10% annually) and in terms of employment (15% annually).

The Chancellor George Osborne wanted to support this vibrant performer, so he unveiled a package of regulatory reform and gave it a small sum of money to start a national Space Technology Programme (UKSTP).

This programme will be primed with £10m from the Treasury and £10m from private industry.

It will fund R&D projects to make sure British labs and companies keep coming up with innovative products and services that can win exports.

All in the space industry applauded. “We welcome the fact that the government recognises the importance of space to growth”, was the common message I was hearing yesterday.

But here’s the thing. As George Osborne was making his Budget announcements in the House of Commons, across the Channel in France the government there was also unveiling a package of support for its space sector.

The value of this package? 500 million euros.

I’m going to write that again so no-one thinks I’ve added an extra nought by mistake. Yes, France’s space sector got an uplift in its government support on Wednesday of 500 million euros (£440m).

It is part of Le Grand Emprunt (“The Big Loan”), a colossal bond-financed investment in a variety of fields, but principally in those related to research and education.

The money on offer to space is so large the French haven’t decided yet where to spend it all.

The largest chunk – 82.5 million euros initially, to be followed by a further 167 million - is going on the project to develop the successor to the Ariane 5 rocket.

This will be a multi-billion-euro endeavour that will eventually require the input of other European nations, but the French intend to lead it.

There are tens of millions of euros also for a new spacecraft to map ocean surface height, for the development of a new class of small satellite platforms, and for new technologies to put on telecommunications spacecraft of the type that route our calls, relay our TV programmes and stream the net.

At this point, I’m reminded of Formula One motor racing, that most hi-tech of sports.

I, like many I’m sure, still miss the BBC’s legendry commentator Murray Walker. Talking about investment and development in F1, Murray used to say: “To stand still in this business is to go backwards.” And this is the problem now faced by the British government.

It’s in a race, also, and the country in the next garage is currently out-investing it on a large scale. And that’s true in a number of garages down the pit lane. OK, metaphor over, but this is the challenge.

The government says the state of the nation’s finances simply cannot allow the type of spending that’s going on in France. So, how does the UK respond?

Richard Peckham is the chairman of UK Space, the umbrella group representing British space companies. He couldn’t avoid the obvious comparison between events in London and Paris on Wednesday either, but he remains very positive about the future.  He told me:

“All the things that were mentioned in the Budget were the things we had requested in our Innovation and Growth Strategy that we published last year. Yes, even the £10m of new money gives a good message, given the austerity times and how difficult it is to get any money out of Treasury.
"In the light of announcements from Paris, this might all seem rather small; but I do see this as a road. We asked for a National Technology Programme. We want it to grow to something like a £100m budget, co-funded with industry, and this is the start. I am positive.
"Obviously, we have a long way to go before we get the same view of space as France, Germany and Italy. And in truth, we will always be a bit different because we will always be focussed more on the commercial aspects, on being smarter with our money, whereas they will always be more public-sector-focussed, retaining the large national programmes they have in the past.
"We’re not going to outspend them, not in my lifetime; but we can be innovative and outsmart them. We can bring out the entrepreneur. Look at Virgin Galactic, Surrey Satellite Technology Limited and Avanti Communications. These all came out of brilliant ideas.”


Future gazing: The prospects for interstellar travel

Jonathan Amos | 08:30 UK time, Tuesday, 15 March 2011

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I've been troubled of late by the scale of things, by the vastness of space.

It's been brought into focus by two things, I think. The first is the Voyager 1 probe - the most distant man-made object from Earth.

I've written a couple of articles recently about this veteran explorer. Launched in 1977 on a grand tour of the outer planets, it's now making a push to leave the Solar System. It's getting very close to crossing into interstellar space. Scientists know this from the way particles thrown off our star are behaving in the vicinity of the probe.

Icarus ship at Neptune

Electric propulsion could see us make more frequent, faster trips to the outer planets

Whereas this "solar wind" has always streamed past Voyager, the particles have now slowed and are moving sideways from it. In other words, Voyager has reached the point where the Sun's domain of influence is pressed right up against that of other stars.

And yet, as extraordinary as Voyager is, its efforts to reach out across space still seem quite puny. In 33 years, it has travelled 17.4 billion kilometres. That sounds a lot - and it is. But it's a tiny fraction (1/2,300) of the distance to the nearest star - Proxima Centauri.

The implications of the "sluggish performance" from this piece of 20th Century technology are underlined by the latest discoveries from Nasa's Kepler space telescope.

Kepler was launched in 2009 to identify planets by looking for the periodic, tell-tale dips in light as these objects pass in front of their host stars.

The telescope views only a small patch of sky but its findings can be extrapolated across the Milky Way Galaxy. Initial projections would indicate that within about 1,000 light-years of Earth, there may be 30,000 or more planets with potentially habitable conditions.

And here's the point that's been troubling me: if we have difficulty in reaching out to a distance equivalent to the nearest star (4.2 light-years), can we seriously ever think of getting to some of these far-flung planets?

For sure, the next generation of giant telescopes will be able to probe their atmospheres and tell us what sort of worlds they are. But what if we discover that a number of them betray tantalising evidence of biology? What then?

All this brings me to this month's edition of the British Interplanetary Society's Spaceflight magazine. The BIS has always harboured future-thinkers (Sir Arthur C Clarke among the greatest) and the magazine has often acted as their forum for discussion.

The current edition of Spaceflight runs an article from an international team of scientists and engineers - with members in the UK, the US, Germany, Australia and Hungary - who have applied themselves to just this issue.

Project Icarus, as they call their venture, have tried to envisage the ships we could be building in the decades and centuries ahead that might just get us a decent distance across space in a time which means something on a human scale.

New propulsion technologies are key, of course. The feeble chemical rocketry that sent Voyager on its way in 1977 will not do. Most favoured are the emerging electric propulsion systems.

These rely on the motion of highly excited gases, or plasmas, moulded by magnetic fields to provide thrust. Although they don't give the initial big kick you get from chemical combustion, their supreme efficiency means they can go on thrusting for extended periods, achieving far more acceleration per kilogram of fuel consumed.

A glimpse of what may be possible in the future can be seen in what appears to be the current pacesetter - a type of electric engine called Vasimr (Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket).

Interstellar travel ship

"World" ships that crossed space to visit other star systems would still take centuries and would be colossal in scale

Labelled a "game changer" by Nasa, this technology is likely to be fitted to the International Space Station in the next few years to help boost its orbit, which has a tendency to decay over time as the platform skirts the top of the atmosphere.

Vasmir prototypes have already produced remarkable performance in laboratory tests. The developers, Ad Astra or Texas, believe their megawatt-class units could get a ship to Mars in as little as three months.

Project Icarus envisages bigger systems that could push deep into interstellar space in just a few decades. Nuclear fusion reactors that drive gigawatt-class vessels may eventually get robots and even humans to other star systems.

Kelvin Long, Project Icarus team-member and co-author of this month's Spaceflight magazine article, said:

"To include a crew on a mission that will take decades to centuries presents many engineering and environmental control issues. For human transport the only credible way is a generation ship or a World Ship, carrying tens to hundreds of people who will arrive at the destination and attempt to colonise one of the planets. Before they go, much about the planet will already be known, from long distance exoplanet discoveries.
"In terms of sending an unmanned probe, the main motivation for this is science return. Long range astronomical observations will improve over time with higher fidelity measurements, but it is difficult to compete with having an actual spacecraft in the system able to study any stars or planets close up, perhaps deploying planetary probes and landers - ultimately looking for signs of life. Along the way, the probe can also conduct valuable science such as improving astronomical parallax measurements or looking for gravity waves. The exploration of the cosmos is the main reason for launching a probe like Icarus.
"Ultimately, we would like to find life in the Universe and ideally intelligent life other than our own. Conducting theoretical studies like... Project Icarus is the only way we can push forward to the stage where we can eventually build something like it, and then perhaps someday go see for ourselves."


Nigeria set to expand its activities in space

Jonathan Amos | 11:24 UK time, Wednesday, 2 March 2011


I remember distinctly when Nigeria adopted its national space policy in 2001 someone turning to me in the BBC newsroom and saying, "what on Earth does Nigeria need a space programme for?"


NigeriaSat-2 will give the African country a powerful capability to map its resources and those of its neighbours

It's a question you often hear directed at India as well as it pursues its ambitions in orbit.

There's an assumption among many, I guess, that space activity is somehow a plaything best left to wealthy industrial countries; that it can have no value to developing nations.

The money would be better spent on things like healthcare and education, so the argument goes.

But what this position often overlooks is that investment in science and technology builds capability and capacity, and develops the sort of people who benefit the economy and society more widely.

It is investment that helps to pull the country up (and industrialised nations know it; that's one of the reasons they invest so heavily in space activity, also).

This is certainly the line taken by Dr Seidu Mohammed. He is the director-general of Nigeria's space agency - the National Space Research and Development Agency (NASRDA), which has an annual budget in the region of $50m.

He told me that space brings great benefits to his country:

"Our own space programme is not an ego trip; it is not meant for lunar missions. It is meant to solve problems at home; problems of agriculture; problems of water resources development; problems of environment, and so on and so forth."

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Nigeria will launch two satellites in the coming months on a Russian/Ukrainian Dnepr vehicle from the Dombarovsky cosmodrome.

One is NigeriaSat-2, a follow-on to the Earth imager NigeriaSat-1 launched in 2003, and the other is NigeriaSat-X.


Nigerian engineers have built a satellite with the help of British engineers

The first is a top-notch small satellite produced by engineers at Surrey Satellite Technology Limited (SSTL) in Guildford, UK, for Nigeria. An extremely powerful platform, NigeriaSat-2 will be able to resolve details down to about 2.5m across.

When it gets into orbit, it will actually give Nigeria an imaging spacecraft more capable than any such asset owned by the British government (the UK calls up "Uncle Sam" when it needs very high-resolution images).

NigeriaSat-X is not quite in the same class (22m resolution) but what's most interesting about this spacecraft is that it has been built by Nigerian engineers under the direction of their SSTL counterparts.

They will be able to go home and make future spacecraft themselves.

It's a model followed by Turkey. They received their education at SSTL as well, and when the Dnepr flies it will also carry RASAT to orbit.

This is the first remote sensing satellite (7.5m resolution) to have been developed and manufactured in Turkey by Turkish engineers.

Dr Seidu Mohammed:

"NigeriaSat-2, in our opinion, when launched, will create a data revolution, not only in Nigeria but in the whole of Africa. In 2009, Nigeria, along with Algeria, South Africa and Kenya, signed a major memorandum that enables Africa to work with itself - which is the Africa Resource Management Constellation. NigeriaSat-2 will be the first satellite in that fleet. It will create a number of data that enables Africa to achieve the so-called Millennium Development Goals and other African initiatives.
"So, to a large extent we are looking to that with excitement. Being a higher resolution image, it will provide the ability to do cadastral mapping (to describe the land and its ownership) in Nigeria. This in our opinion will improve the revenue base of most states by more than 1,000%, and this will go a long way in supporting governance, because we believe governance is about providing welfare in education, health and some other areas."

Nigeria has something like 40 people around the world right now doing PhDs in some aspect of space engineering. There are many completing MSc studies, too. It's all knowledge that they will take home.

Nigeria has grander plans, of course. A key goal in the coming years is to develop a radar satellite. The climate experienced in the southern part of the country means it gets a lot of cloud cover, and the only way you can see through cloud is with radar.

Dr Mohammed says radar would help Nigeria to patrol better its mineral and fisheries wealth.

At the moment, there is a lot of oil theft in Nigeria - a practice known as "bunkering". And there are many foreign vessels that come into Nigerian waters to fish illegally. It all amounts to billions in losses to the national economy.

Keep an eye out for the Dnepr launch in the months ahead. The two Nigerian satellites will both go into the Disaster Monitoring Constellation (DMC), the UK-managed network of remote sensing spacecraft that provide rapid imaging in times of crisis.

Gulf of Mexico

NigeriaSat-1 was one of the first satellites tasked with imaging the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. NigeriaSat-2 and NigeriaSat-X will also engage in disaster zone mapping


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