Increasing Your Functional Size

The BBC posted a great article about how Estonia has embraced technology to overcome its relatively small size, this extract about/from President Toomas Hendrik sums it up nicely:

There’s a story from his time in the US that he is fond of telling. He read a book whose “Luddite, neo-Marxist” thesis, he says, was that computerisation would be the death of work.

The book cited a Kentucky steel mill where several thousands of workers had been made redundant, because after automatisation, the new owners could produce the same amount of steel with only 100 employees.

“This may be bad if you are an American,” he says. “But from an Estonian point of view, where you have this existential angst about your small size – we were at that time only 1.4 million people – I said this is exactly what we need.

“We need to really computerise, in every possible way, to massively increase our functional size.”

I’ve been thinking along similar lines about the future of the UK. We’re much bigger than Estonia, but a relatively small global player, and due to get smaller as numerically larger countries become more developed. Continue reading

The Disposable Satellite

Some I’m reading through this piece about Europe’s latest weather satellite and some of the timescales and costs stunned me (emphasis mine):

The latest Meteosat series, for example, is priced at some 2.2bn euros (£1.75bn)

The natural desire for fiscal efficiency demanded that the four spacecraft built for the programme were all made at the same time (it’s cheaper to mass produce), even though their launch would have to be staggered to provide continuity of operation over 20 years

Of course, the consequence of this approach means you end up having a lot of very valuable, high-precision engineering sitting in store. Meteosat-10, the third platform to fly, has spent eight years on the ground waiting to make its ascent to orbit.

And the next bunch are due to cost €3.4bn, the first to reach orbit in 2018 and to cover through to 2040. Continue reading

Trawling the Archives

One of the things I lost in the move from self-hosted to wordpress.com was my custom snippet post type.  It was an attempt to create a Tumblr-esque quick post mechanism, and it worked.  But the way the links were stored meant they didn’t get exported, so every thing in the snippets category lost its link to the source material and some where just orphaned headlines with no link or description.

So I’ve manually gone through and added source links and, in many cases, some information about the original article (some made no sense so out of context).

The process of adding the links doing forced me to re-read many of those articles and my predictions and comments and it made some interesting reading, so I thought I would sum a few of them up (some will make it to their own posts).

Tablet Computers

Back in 2008 I posted about the TechCrunch tablet, which evolved, through bitter dispute, into the JooJoo or whatever it was called, and promptly died a death.  I think the concept is still valid (a simpler tablet to the iPad) and the iPad has obviously proved we were on to something. Continue reading

Reviving the UK’s Space Programme

OK, so reviving it is probably over the top, but there are plans to contact the UK’s first — and so far only — satellite, which is still in orbit.  The UK’s only space programme is another example of delivering will working on a shoe-string.

The programme, Black Arrow, which launched the satellite, Prospero (AKA X-3), came out of a previous project to build an Intermediate-Range Ballistic Missile (IRBM), called Blue Streak (the names of these projects come from the Ministry of Supply’s naming system called Rainbow Codes, that consisted of a colour and a noun).  Blue Streak was designed as a replacement for nuclear weapons dropped from aircraft as aerial defences were becoming too strong for traditional bombers.  Due to spiraling costs, the project was cancelled and the UK bought Polaris missiles from the US instead.

Incidentally, the Blue Streak missile took so long to fuel it was open to a pre-emptive strike attack, so the UK developed underground missile silos to protect them from such an attack.  Another innovation we subsequently gave to the Americans. Continue reading

Space Must Pay

As you may be aware, the Shuttle has hung up its boots.  The final flight has been completed and the venerable old thing has been retired.  You could argue it’s done well for something designed in the 1970s (its roots go back to designs from the 50s and 60s), which had its maiden flight in 1981.  Two catastrophic failures in 135 flights isn’t bad.  The problem with the Shuttle was that it never really delivered the project goals.  It wasn’t really reusable (the external tank wasn’t), it took a long time to turnaround and it was expensive to run.  And so the US moves into the era of commercial space flight, where NASA will procure launch vehicles from private contractors.  Probably not a bad thing.  Certainly it was long overdue for a replacement, just look how far the rest of the world has moved on since it was introduced (the IBM PC, running DOS, was also launched in 1981).

The problem with spaceflight is price.  Only governments have been able to afford it thus far, and only a few of those.  The US was able to justify it when the cold war was in full swing, but science isn’t enough when you’re trillions of dollars in debt.  The Chinese and the Indians are on the way though, so although the Russians no longer pose a threat and have largely fallen by the wayside (making a good business out of commercial spaceflight, ironically), the US still has some impetus to keep one foot in the heavens, even if the bold talk of a moon base and Mars has now been dropped.

Moving to the private sector isn’t a bad thing, more companies are entering the space market to provide cheaper launch vehicles for satellites and are starting to drive the cost down.  Many of the rockets being developed to put something into orbit can be adapted to do the same for manned flights.  It may even mean more nations are able to enter space and the International Space Station (ISS) may actually start to live up to its name.  It’s still going to be massively expensive though.  It’s also unlikely any of the private projects will be capable of a moon shot any time soon.

At the moment there are few benefits from going into space, outside science anyway, it doesn’t return revenue.  For companies, the money comes from someone paying for a launch using your platform.  To drive a space industry there needs to be a reason to develop reusable, reliable, cheap launch vehicles.

Space Tourism

Space tourism (or personal spaceflight, as some prefer to call it) is already a sector making money.  So far it has been limited to a few ultra-rich people, but the likes of Virgin Galactic have shown there is demand for more widespread space travel (over 400 people have put down $20,000 deposits for $200,000 seats on their planned sub-orbital flights).  We’re still in the early-adopter phase and $200,000 is way out of most people’s price range, but it shows the desire is there.  The flights are only sub-orbital, not really space travel, but the price is a vast improvement on the $20 million Mark Shuttleworth paid for his trip to the ISS.

The real change will come with spaceplanes, aircraft which can take off and land from a conventional runway, completely reusable, just need to be refuelled and relaunched.  There are plenty of companies working on these, but none appear close to building a working plane any time soon even though there are potentially massive financial rewards for not only spaceflight, but also launching satellites and trans-global flights.

At the moment the options are for fleeting visits to near-space, but some companies have already started to plan (and some have even launched prototypes) for larger scale space tourism, with space habitats offering hotel accommodation in zero-gravity.  The vehicles being developed to service the ISS for NASA could happily offer trips to such stations.  Even existing spacecraft like the Soyuz and ATV could service this requirement.  Longer-term these could even lead to lunar habits, although Mars is another huge step altogether.  None of them were designed with mass manufacture in mind though, so I suspect we’ll be looking at a new wave of craft to turn these into proper commercial flights.

Space-Based Industry

Another benefit of having more orbital habitats would be the option to put industry in space.  Most spacecraft designed to travel outside low Earth orbit operate a multi-stage to orbit approach, with a vast rocket to get them into space, while the main craft is much smaller and relies on much smaller propulsion.  Being able to build these in space would make the process must less risky and could mean much larger craft are possible (at the moment, any craft is limited by what the largest rocket can carry).  It could also open up options for things like repair and recycling of existing satellites.

Another use is materials manufacturing.  Space offers a unique environment which will lead to the development of unique materials that can only be produced in space as well as higher quality versions of existing chemicals and materials.  Better quality crystals can be produced, for example, the vacuum also enables defect-free materials, the temperature means materials can be produced close to absolute zero.

Energy generation is another possibility, hosting vast solar arrays, gravity generators or some other method could generate massive amounts of power which could be transmitted back to Earth for use.

Mining Space

We’re currently in the middle of a resources land grab.  The oil is going to run out and countries are making big plays to secure coal, gas, iron and other resources wherever they can.  When we’re all squabbling over the scraps that remain, being able to mine an asteroid suddenly looks promising, with even a small one providing vast amounts of material.  Even the moon may provide resources which could be harvested.

Capturing, extracting and returning them to Earth would be no mean feat, but much of it could be done remotely.  A captured asteroid could serve many purposes as well, not just as a source of materials, but it could also be turned into a habitat or play host to a solar array.

Final Thoughts

We’re still at a very early stage of space exploration and development.  The problem is, unless we’re careful, it may just stagnate and fail.  Left alone we’ll simply send up the occasional mission, maybe the odd astronaut to check the ISS is still running, but even it has a shelf-life.  Newer nations like the Chinese and Indians may reinvigorate the sector and the entrance of the private sector will hopefully be a good thing.  In order to expand and grow the market though, we need to start thinking beyond what we currently do in space.  Opening up to the masses is one option, but other economic factors will hopefully drive the changes in technology (not to mention the glamour of space).

We last went beyond local orbit in 1972 (the final Apollo mission that landed on the moon), the better part of 40 years ago.  We’re not in a position to go back any time soon, but I hope it won’t be another 40 years before we do.  It took 60 years to get from the first flight of an aeroplane to something approximating the air industry we currently have, I don’t think it will take as long for space travel to do the same, but even if it’s half as long we’re still looking at 30 years.

Science Fiction and Fact Blurred

The story that ‘a fifth of [British] adults incorrectly believe lightsabers exist’ has been doing the rounds for the last week. Which is a fairly shocking statistic, some of the others are equally shocking:

  • Nearly a quarter (24%) of people are wrong in their belief that humans can be teleported.
  • Nearly 50% of adults wrongly believe that memory-erasing technology exists.
  • More than 40% of people incorrectly believe that hover boards exist.
  • Nearly one fifth (18%) of adults have the incorrect view that they can see gravity.

Those are fair enough, but the original article, published by Birmingham Science City has a few others I’d argue are misleading:

“For example, over three quarters (78%) of Britons believe that invisibility cloaks exist only in the realms of fiction, and yet a team at the University of Birmingham, led by Prof Shuang Zhang, has developed a method for making objects appear invisible.”

Well, not strictly true. Prof Zhang’s work is to use a crystal, that can only ‘hide’ things up to a few centimetres, not exactly a cloak, so score one the punters, invisibility cloaks don’t exist.

“Almost 90% of people think it would be impossible to grow an extra pair of eyes, even though scientists, led by Professors Nick Dale and Elizabeth Jones, at the University of Warwick have found this is possible in frogs. The team believes they will be able to use the technology to explore eye development in humans and grow an ‘eye in a dish’.”

Again, last time I checked, humans were not frogs, so it is impossible for humans to grow an extra pair of eyes, score two the punters. Question should have been re-worded to say: ‘is it possible to grow an extra pair of human eyes?’ Then the answer might have been yes, but currently that is still a no.

“Seven out of ten adults questioned thought it was impossible to move objects with their mind, yet researchers at Coventry University’s Serious Games Institute have collaborated with California-based company, NeuroSky, to develop a headset which can read analogue electrical brainwaves and turn them into digital signals. This allows the user to manipulate images on a screen and power user-interfaces in games, education and medical applications using only their minds.”

Again, incorrectly worded. They said can humans move objects with their mind. No they can’t, telekinesis is impossible, score three the punters. If they had asked whether it was possible to control devices using your mind and get them to move objects, then yes, that would have been true.

So you have to wonder how the other questions were worded and therefore how bad, actually, the punters did.

Japan Quake Reignites Questions About Nuclear Power

Two days on and there are still concerns over the safety of Japan’s nuclear reactors.  Japan relies fairly heavily on nuclear power stations, it produces 34.5% of all of their electricity and they have a total of 53 reactors.  By comparison, it accounts for just over 19% across 19 reactors in the UK, but the US is the largest producer of energy from nuclear reactors, having 104, but they still only account for around 19% of total output.

There has been a lot of talk about Japan’s reactors in recent days, due to the damage caused by the earthquake, but the one causing the biggest concern at the moment is Fukushima II, which was built back in the early-mid eighties.

Now, there have been some fairly big nuclear incidents and we’ve all been led to believe that lessons have been learned and nuclear power is now totally safe.  Apparently that is not the case.  In response to the quake, Japan’s reactors shut themselves down automatically.  All good.  Except three of the reactors at Fukushima II are starting to overheat because the diesel generators that were supposed to cut in when they lost power from the generator in order to keep the cooling pumps running, cut out after an hour, no one knows why.  Apparently it can take days to cool the reactor to a state where the pumps aren’t needed.  So they’ve been trying desperate moves to try and cool the reactor, now they’re using sea water and the US are sending coolant (Cringely thinks it’s sodium polyborate).  No one knows if that’s going to be enough.

Now, an earthquake is a pretty unusual event (not so much in Japan), so you could forgive the designers for not designing a plant that could counter one.  But there have been plenty of cover-ups and safety problems before now when they were all running fine.  I’m not pointing a finger at Japan, they’re not any worse than anyone else and that’s what bothers me.

I’m not a big fan of nuclear power, not least because it costs so much to decommission a site, it can never really be used again and the only solution to the waste it produces is to dig a big hole and bury it for thousands of years.  Maybe it’s time we looked again before we commit to building more reactors (as we are in the UK).