Sailing into space

6 05 2010

No, not a comment about today’s election. Although I think we all have a sense that we are about to enter uncharted territory once the votes have been counted. This is a much more uplifting story from Japan about their latest spacecraft, to be launched within the next few weeks.  What could be more elegant than a spacecraft with sails, driven by the sun’s particles, flying at 500,000 miles per hour across the solar system. And note, this idea was first dreamed up by Arthur C Clarke in a science fiction story. At this crucial time in human history we need more people with big dreams, and more people prepared to turn them into reality. I am reproducing the whole story from the Times below.

Leo Lewis in Tokyo

The Japanese space agency, flushed with the success of its origami space orbiter and zero-gravity sushi experiments, is poised for another spectacular leap into the cosmos: the launch of the first “space yacht”.

In three weeks’ time, in a trial run that is expected to captivate space researchers and science-fiction writers alike, a Mitsubishi H-IIA rocket will be sent into orbit from the island of Tanegashima and release its small satellite into the void.

Soon afterwards, having spent a few weeks first settling into a slow rotation, Ikaros will reveal its secret, unfurling the microscopically fine 20m sail that some believe to be the future of interplanetary travel.

Over the following six months — and if the theory of “solar yacht” propulsion holds up — Ikaros will begin its silent journey towards Venus, driven by only the tiny but relentless force of solar particles buffeting the sail.

If it works, it will be a triumph. Other space agencies have succeeded in unfurling experimental sails in space, but have yet to produce the expected propulsion. With every passing second Ikaros should gather a tiny amount of speed.

The craft derives its name from Icarus, the character from Greek mythology whose ill-planned flight took him too close to the Sun and ended in disaster.

Keen to avoid this association, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (Jaxa) is keen to point out that Ikaros stands for Interplanetary Kite-craft Accelerated by Radiation of the Sun. A larger version of the vessel could eventually travel at tens of thousands of miles per hour without any fuel.

The sail is designed to exploit the behaviour of photons, the particles that leave the Sun carrying energy in the form of heat, light and — critically for the space yacht — momentum.

It is the weak but unremitting beams of photons that give comets tails as their solar cores propel the dust behind them.

The Ikaros sail is coated with tiny mirrors that the photons bounce off, pushing the satellite through the resistance-free environment of space.

The Japanese experiment will test how quickly and effectively the photons can drive the satellite along, and how well the device can be controlled.

In theory, larger sails should deliver greater propulsion given enough time. Scientists in the United States believe that a sail a mile across could gradually achieve a pace to carry a craft across the solar system in five years.

If the sail were “shot” with the more targeted light of a laser, a solar yacht could theoretically achieve speeds of 500,000 mph.

In his final novel, The Last Theorem, the late Arthur C. Clarke imagined solar yacht races with astronauts competing to reach the Moon and back by photon power.

The sail, which cost about £10 million to create, is about the thickness of a Cellophane sandwich wrapper (32.5 micrometers) and covered with a second experimental material — so-called “thin film” solar panels, which also have potential applications on Earth.

The panels coat the sail so that Ikaros has a source of electrical power. It can then use it to ionise gas and fire it from small jets — a method of propulsion already used in conventional satellites. Japan is not the only country pursuing space sail technology. Russia is close to producing a version of the space yacht and much of the material science behind the sails has been developed in the United States.

Even if the prospect of sending sail-powered craft through the galaxy remains distant, the technology could make an immediate difference to conventional satellites. Without the need for fuel and cumbersome propulsion mechanisms, sails would allow satellites to be built smaller and lighter, requiring less energy to launch them into space.

The maiden Ikaros mission will last six months but the Japanese agency has further ambitions for the technology if it proves successful. It is hoping to send a device with larger sails towards Jupiter early in the next decade.

Flying high

Arthur C. Clarke, the English science-fiction writer, is best known for The Sentinel, which was made into the film 2001: A Space Odyssey. Clarke had a knack for producing visions of the future. He foresaw the creation of communication satellites, proposing they should orbit the equator.

Google isn’t evil, just another big business

10 03 2010

Google has had some bad publicity recently. It is in trouble with the EU around monopoly issues. It has decided to pull out of China after the devil’s pact it made with the Chinese government to allow censorship of its search engine finally unravelled. It is widely accused of squeezing out competitors and moving on to other people’s business turf. In addition it has long been looked at suspiciously by privacy campaigners because it has recorded details of every single search by every one of its users from its inception (yes, sorry, even that one you did when you were really drunk that night in 1999). All in all, many people would say that Google’s famous corporate slogan, ‘don’t be evil’ is wearing a bit thin.

 My view on Google is a bit like my take on Microsoft. Years ago Microsoft became corporate enemy number one to those who resented its near monopoly in the desktop and browser market. Big, ground-breaking businesses like Microsoft and Google generally do one really successful thing to establish themselves. In so doing, they create an industry standard which is very user friendly.  Microsoft did it with Outlook and Explorer, Google has done it with search. In the process of doing this they became very rich and powerful. Then, as is the nature of big businesses, they tend to crowd out or absorb competition. This is the way of modern monopoly capitalism and it applies in every sector of the economy. Most of the continued success of big businesses is based upon the fact that their customers are quite happy with the product. When something goes seriously wrong, as happened recently with Toyota, size alone is not enough to protect your business.

 I was always irritated by the ‘don’t be evil’ motto and it has proved self defeating, especially through the acceptance of censorship in China. Businesses have no right to describe themselves as ‘good’ or ‘evil’, but should be judged by the quality of their products and their ability to sustain and develop them. Businesses that flagrantly transgress the law or which upset public opinion will receive their punishment in the end. In fact it is surprising how short the main success period span of even the biggest companies often is.

 Campaigning against or resenting individual big businesses is a fairly pointless activity in a society which is based on the market. Leaving aside the conspiracy theorists, there are normally very transparent reasons why businesses do what they do and why they get away with it. Take for example the issue of privacy. There is no doubt in my mind that Google’s retention of search data is a huge invasion of privacy. The only reason it is has got away for it as long as it has is because most people are not bothered by it. But this is because of the prevalent blasé approach to personal privacy which exists within society, not because of anything that Google has done. Anybody who wishes to challenge Google’s right to retain data should be aiming to change society’s view on privacy, not blaming Google for taking advantage of the status quo.

 Martin Sorrell, the boss of WPP, an advertising house which like many others feels Google is stepping on its toes, recently described Google as WPP’s ‘frenemy’.  This is a very good description of most big businesses. They provide us, sometimes imperfectly, with what we need or desire, but because they are essentially profit making businesses they also want to destroy their competition and to exploit their customers to the full. It’s not personal, it’s business.

A version of this article also appeared on Spiked

Mars Attack-why we need a manned mission to Mars

20 07 2009

mars1This blog has already said most of what it wanted to say about the moon landing long before the 40th anniversary. So let us discuss Mars instead.

Here are ten reasons why we should support a manned mission to Mars as soon as possible.

1. Because it is there.

2. Because setting ourselves this task would prove that we humans have not lost our fundamental urge to explore the world around us. The Times today argues that curing cancer is the modern equivalent of the moon landing. Keeping people alive longer is a laudable mission, but space travel speaks to a different set of human ambitions. It does not have to be one or the other.

3. Because it would require an enormous amount of courage on the part of those taking part which would inspire the whole world. As Buzz Aldrin, one of the moon walkers in 1969 said recently

I believe that a mission to Mars would need a commitment to a permanent settlement of people who have signed up to spend the whole of their career on the planet…we are talking about pilgrims, the sort of people who left (England)on the Mayflower.

4. Because it would require international cooperation on a vast scale.

5. Because in the course of solving the numerous scientific, human and technological problems that currently stand in the way of such a trip we would discover many new things about our world and about ourselves.

6. Because a colony on Mars would be a stepping stone for the exploration of the rest of the Universe.

7. Because we would be taking a calculated risk at a time when risk taking has a bad name. A Mars mission would challenge the safety first culture which dominates many cultures today.

8. Because if any natural disaster affected the earth we would need somewhere to escape to.

9. Because if we do not do it the Chinese will anyway. Not being involved would prove that we in Britain had abandoned any pretence to being of any significance in the modern world. As Buzz Aldrin says, ‘a vibrant nation explores or expires’.

10. Because a colony on Mars would change our perception of ourselves in the Universe.

The heat is on in the debate on climate change

29 06 2009

The heat is on in LondonTemperatures are predicted to soar in London this week. As the mercury climbs higher no doubt it will be accompanied by louder claims that this is the product of global warming and human irresponsibility towards the environment. To digress a little, I was at the Neil Young concert in Hyde Park on Saturday when he played one of his dreadful odes to Mother Earth and how we are raping it etc. I looked around and the crowd, up until then excited by Young’s fantastic guitar playing, suddenly resembled a funeral party. Indeed, when I started to discuss this with my wife I was told to hush by someone close by.

This quasi religious approach to all things environmental typifies what is wrong with the climate change discussion. As Joe Kaplinsky and James Woudhuysen argue in their very good book Energise – A Future For Energy Innovation, insofar as there is a problem with human created climate change it needs to be tackled through a concerted programme of  energy innovation.  In other words it  should be a scientific and technological issue rather than a moral or political one.

The problem with discussing this issue at all is that climate change has become so politicised  that it is hard, as a rational person, to distinguish good science from green-led proselytising and moral blackmail.  It is also right to feel sceptical about a subject where nay sayers are accused of being ‘in denial’ and compared with war criminals.  

Nevertheless we have to assume that many of the scientists involved in this area are basing their concerns on good observations and proper scientific methodology. To do otherwise risks falling into the anti-science camp which doubts and questions all scientific progress. As Rob Clowes pointed out recently, were all the climate science to be proved wrong it would be the biggest failure of science since Lysenko.

However, given that climate change has been politicised, we have to challenge the anti-growth sentiments which lie behind it. The extent to which climate change is man made and can be reversed remains an open question. What we do have to insist on is that collectively humanity requires far more energy in order to have a good quality of life. This requires an open minded approach to energy innovation and far more resources put into all types of energy development. It requires an emphasis on economic growth to pay for it and a challenge to anybody who wishes to limit the types of energy that are developed on the basis that they change the world around us.

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Putting the no in innovation

8 05 2009

A dispiriting article in today’s Financial Times sums up much of what is wrong with the government’s approach to investment in innovation. In the last budget it was announced that £750 million would be set aside for a Strategic Investment Fund. This was presented as financial support for a new kind of positive ‘industrial activist’ strategy.

Leaving aside for the moment that one third of this money is set aside for low carbon business opportunities (see my previous blog  on this), there is obvious merit in funnelling funds into technology start-ups, even if the amount available, which is to cover a two-year period, is very small. The problem is that this fund was announced without any proper planning or discussion.  The Ministry which is supposed to adminster this fund was only told about it a few days before the announcement.

So we have an investment fund with no clear goals or any mechanism for distributing the money. As the report says, people are queuing up for access to this cash, and it is encouraging that there appears to be a strong demand for new investment. But the lack of clarity about what it is for or how it is to be administered throws doubt on how quickly it will be put to good use.

We are in a deep recession and any new technology investment would be a good thing, but the slapdash way this has been done betrays a lack of urgency in addressing the situation. This was summed up by the unnamed official who said there was no rush as they had 2 years to phase in the spending.

Innovation and inspiration

6 05 2009

A good article by Anjana Ajuha emphasises that innovation in science and technology is by its nature unpredictable.  She states that research should not be too narrowly constrained to the supposed needs of the economy.  The article further criticises Lord Drayson, the Science and Innovation Minister, for suggesting that spending on scientific research in the UK should be focused on climate change technologies and medical research.

Innovation to guidelines

"I'll be happy to give you innovative thinking. What are the guidelines?"

Ajuha cites as a better example the approach of the Gates Foundation who are funding research into finding a cure for malaria. The Gates Foundation is funding unorthodox ideas, including some wacky ones like giving mosquitoes a head cold so they cannot smell their potential victims.

While I agree with her general sentiment that stuffing innovation down narrow pipes is likely to be counterproductive, since discoveries often happen when scientists are looking for something else, I think she is missing the main point.  The work that the Gates Foundation is trying to do is inspiring because it has set itself the task of tackling and solving a huge problem, malaria, that kills millions of people each year. It is extremely well funded out of Bill Gates’ own personal fortune and that of another billionaire, Warren Buffet.

I suggest that the reason Ms Ajuha finds Lord Drayson so uninspiring in comparison is because there is no set objective which can capture our imagination.  In the absence of a goal that can inspire us, why should resources be set aside on a scale which can transform our society?  The best historical example of this is the Kennedy Moon Programme  which contains within it both ambition and an ability to galvanise the best minds of a nation.

The way that this should work is that we, through our politicians, should set a goal for what we want to achieve. The State then has a role in channelling resources and enabling legislation to make things happen. Real creativity comes from the combination of a goal with the resources available to make it happen. There would then be nothing wrong in choosing, for example, to make the UK a world leader in medical research, but it has to be because we want it, not because a government minister has decreed that is what we should do.