Disturbing the Universe

David L Clements, science and science fiction


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Royal Society Show

Some people seem to think that academics don’t do anything in their long ‘vacations’. I think I’d quite like to go back to term term, as I’ve pretty much been non-stop ever since term ended at the end of June.

The main reason for this, and for my absence from these pages, is that I was running the Planck stand at the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition. This is a week long extravaganza, where scientists from about 23 selected teams show off their science to the public using exhibition stands set up in the Royal Society’s building, just off the Mall. I’ve been part of shows before, most recently last year’s Herschel exhibit, but this was the first time I had run a stand. The experience of being in charge is very different!

Things that were new to me, at least with respect to running the stand, was sorting the budget, ordering piles of stuff from many different people, getting artwork sorted from our excellent graphic designer and much more. The most stressful, from my point of view, was ensuring that everything we needed was going to be there on time. Mostly this worked, and, at the end of the Sunday before the exhibition opened, we had a stand.

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I think we had one of the nicest stands, though I would say that. We had the centrepiece, which is a 1/4 scale model of Planck, we had videos running above, a Planck version of Chromoscope running around the side of the stand to the right, some examples of flight hardware in a display box, two touchscreens running appropriate games/demos, one of which can be found here, and even a telephone where you can dial up the sound of the Big Bang!

We also had lots of freebies – pens, fridge magnets, bookmarks, leaflets, and even papercraft models of Planck to cut out and build. All of those even arrived on time. However, what was meant to be the piece de resistance did not arrive on time. I ordered small inflatable beachballs with the Planck CMB map printed on them. I was promised delivery the Friday before the exhibition opened and they did not turn up. They also didn’t turn up on the Monday or Tuesday. By the Wednesday, my first full day away from the stand since it started, I was on to the suppliers playing – well not exactly Dr Angry, but certainly Dr Disappointed.

It turned out that the company was disappointed too, since our universes, and several other customers’ orders, were unaccountably being held by HMRC for no readily apparent reason.

They didn’t turn up until the Monday after the show had ended, and there are some production problems with them as well as the delivery issue. Still, some novel uses have already been found for them…

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This is what happens when graduate students get to play with too many universes!

Despite the lack of beach balls, the show went very well. This is what was left of the stand late into the packing up process, as we awaited the van to collect the model.

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According to the Royal Society we had over 11000 people through the front door, and a further 30000 who looked at our web material during the show, and you can still look at the stuff on the web.

The visitors were very varied, from 5 year olds to Fellows of the Royal Society and everything in between, so you have to think on your feet when answering questions. It was a lot of fun, but exhausting to be in charge. I’ll happily stand aside so that someone else can have that pleasure next time.

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The Launcher Business

Earth orbit, as Heinlein said, is halfway to anywhere, and the business of getting there is getting interesting.

Back in the day, I used to follow such luminaries of the space access movement as Harry Vanderbilt and the newsgroup (yes – it’s that long ago) sci.space. The mantra in those days was that launch costs could be reduced by freeing up new private companies to innovate, and getting away from ‘cost plus’ style government contracts.

For a brief period there were moves in that direction, with companies great and small looking at cheaper ways into orbit. Alongside the big boys like MacDonald-Douglas with DC-X, were smaller guys like Rotary Rocket and Pioneer Rocketplane. The Single Stage to Orbit (SSTO) approach even got so far that NASA funded a number of studies. But all of those came to nothing, including the NASP and the X-33. Not much came of these programmes, and there are a variety of reasons suggested for this. It may be that SSTO is just too technically difficult, but it also may be that certain large companies, with a large market for their existing expendable launch vehicles, didn’t want these upstarts to succeed, and so did their best to make sure the programmes failed.

Now, a decade and more further down the river, things are actually changing, and that’s largely down to Elon Musk, the Falcon 9, and future derivatives such as Falcon-Heavy. While Falcon Heavy has yet to launch, and Falcon 9 has had only four times, its success to date, and its much cheaper costs to orbit and changing things in ways rather similar to those suggested by the space access activists all those years ago. And Musk is now going global, with his launch company, Space-X’s, order book bulging and with him making prognostications that ESA’s Ariane 5 is doomed.

This all comes at the same time that HMG is putting more money into space, and specifically into ESA. While the UK is interested more in satellites and applications than in launch vehicles, the future of ESA’s launcher is still an important factor. It’s unlikely that ESA will ever have a mainstream launcher that it doesn’t have an involvement in, though it is set up to use some Russian launchers in Kouru, but if it ends up with an overpriced system, then it will be at a disadvantage compared to NASA and others. And if that happens the commercial launcher side will die.

So where does ESA and the Ariane launchers go next?

There is already some dispute about whether there should be an evolution of Ariane 5 before a move to a bigger cheaper Ariane 6. But there are other possibilities, and maybe, just maybe, HMG’s new enthusiasm for space might have some connection with it.

Of all the old plans for cheap access to space, one of the most interesting was HOTOL. This was a UK project, with involvement from British Aerospace (as it still was then) and Rolls Royce, and was based on a radically new engine technology that could use oxygen in the atmosphere as an oxidiser while it is available, then switching to an on board oxygen tank once that runs out. This reduces the fuel supply, increases efficiency, and helps keep costs down. HOTOL would operate like a plane, with horizontal take-off and landing (HOTOL), just like Gerry Anderson told us real rockets would work.

Sadly, nothing came of this at the time, and the story of that is an interesting tale of government backing, corporate conservatism, and patent law that is sometimes told at UK SF conventions.

But all was not lost. From the ashes of HOTOL, the engine’s designer, Alan Bond, and his company, Reaction Engines, survived, and a new, better, design emerged. This is called Skylon, and, if reports are correct, they have been getting gradually closer to a working engine. They’re no longer dependent on other large companies, but instead have venture capital funding. They don’t need government backing because of this, so the problems of HOTOL will hopefully be avoided.

But if there’s a new, cheap, frankly, world beating launcher technology emerging from the UK, the government will surely want to have something to do with it. By putting more money into ESA the UK will get more out of the organisation. While much of this will be in the form of the new ESA centre at Harwell, is it possible that some of these new crumbs will fall towards Skylon, allowing, at the very least, a Union Flag to fly on it and, just maybe, have Skylon as a candidate new launch system for ESA?


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News from the Sky

As many of you will have heard, two satellites – an Iridium communications satellite and a defunct Russian vehicle – collided in low earth orbit yesterday. This didn’t immediately mean much to me until the phone started ringing in my office. The college media office were looking for someone who could talk to the media about this. Since they know I’m involved with satellite astronomy I got the call.

I thus ended up waiting a fair bit for people to call back, and for a while I thought it would amount to nothing. But I’ve just finished a radio interview with IRN (independent radio news, the radio equivalent to ITN, and serving commercial stations across the UK). Seemed to go well.

If you hear me on your local station let me know!