Tag Archives: manned spaceflight


Yes. As the title brilliantly puts it, there have been developments in the area of protecting astronauts from deadly solar radiation. This radiation has been seen as one of the big obstacles to transporting astronauts over interplanetary distances:

Large numbers of these energetic particles occur intermittently as “storms” with little warning and are already known to pose the greatest threat to man. Nature helps protect the Earth by having a giant “magnetic bubble” around the planet called the magnetosphere.

Space craft visiting the Moon or Mars could maintain some of this protection by taking along their very own portable “mini”-magnetosphere. The idea has been around since the 1960’s but it was thought impractical because it was believed that only a very large (more than 100km wide) magnetic bubble could possibly work.

Computer simulations done by a team in Lisbon with scientists at Rutherford Appleton last year showed that theoretically a very much smaller “magnetic bubble” of only several hundred meters across would be enough to protect a spacecraft.

Now this has been confirmed in the laboratory in the UK using apparatus originally built to work on fusion. By recreating in miniature a tiny piece of the Solar Wind, scientists working in the laboratory were able to confirm that a small “hole” in the Solar Wind is all that would be needed to keep the astronauts safe on their journey to our nearest neighbours.

All in all good news – and since our Glorious Leaders were able to drop five huge into our bust financial system at short notice I am no longer concerned over the cost of long range manned space exploration.

[image from the Physorg story]

Light buffet: Entanglement, warp drives, and slower beams

star-gate-openResearchers in Geneva are trying to figure the speed of quantum entanglement, aka “the fact that measuring a property of one particle instantly determines the property of another…” Experiments with photons 18 km apart suggest that entanglement “moves” at least 10,000 times the speed of light. “I think there’s probably much deeper issues,” comments one of their British colleagues. [SciAm]

Meanwhile, to propel your starship by real-life warp drive, two Baylor U. physicists say you can too change the laws of physics. Just bend the space around the ship by recreating conditions that existed when the universe was expanding, and light moved faster than it does today. All we need is 11 dimensions a la string theory, and a mass the size of Jupiter to convert to pure energy. And we thought an invisibility cloak was impressive. [io9; Discovery News; preprint]

Back in this millennium, bulky, expensive, and complicated electronic routers are slowing down the Internet. A possible solution: slow down light itself, through the use of “metamaterials” to do away with all that tedious mucking about during the switching process.

“With these materials, you could imagine something more like a single chip with the metamaterial handling the routing—all the capability of one of these big filtering systems, but the size of your fingernail,” says Dr [Chris] Stevens [of Oxford].

[image: Star Gate by Imbecillsallad]

White elephants… IN SPACE!

Suggestions for what exactly to do with the International Space Station are always welcome. Michael Benson, writing in The Washington Post suggests sending it to the Moon:

The ISS, you see, is already an interplanetary spacecraft — at least potentially. It’s missing a drive system and a steerage module, but those are technicalities. Although it’s ungainly in appearance, it’s designed to be boosted periodically to a higher altitude by a shuttle, a Russian Soyuz or one of the upcoming new Constellation program Orion spacecraft.

This seems a little crazy, but then so does spending $156 billion on the ISS in the first place (check out the discussion on Slashdot about the technical side of it). As it is, we don’t seem to be getting much in the way of tangible benefits from the ISS. As Michael Benson points out:

But if the station’s goal is to conduct yet more research into the effects of zero gravity on human beings, well, there’s more than enough of that already salted away in Russian archives, based on the many years of weightlessness that cosmonauts heroically logged in a series of space stations throughout the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s. By now, ISS crews have also spent serious time in zero gravity. We know exactly what weightlessness does and how to counter some of its atrophying effects. (Cue shot of exercycle.)

In any case I’m fairly cynical about the medium-term benefits of human space travel. We have enough trillion dollar problems here on Earth without wasting money on white elephants like the ISS.

elephantI agree that people need frontiers and visible symbols of human progress. To inspire a sense of wonder about the universe is very laudable, but surely we are not so unimaginative as to be unable to find other, less literal, frontiers than space?

Advances in biology, neuroscience, and computer science can provide enough sense-of-wonder to keep everyone happy. Also these areas are much cheaper to pursue (in comparison to space travel) and have the potential to yield much more practically useful results.

Purely scientific study can be pursued by unmanned probes without going to the expense of transporting tin-cans full of hominids billions of kilometres to plant a flag.

[story in The Washington Post via Slashdot][image from chidorian on flickr]

Sarko in space

French President Nicolas SarkozyWith France assuming the (rotating) presidency of the European Union, the BBC reports on a potential shift in European space policy;

President Nicolas Sarkozy‘s well-known admiration for all things American now extends to space exploration. Speaking to the BBC, a senior official involved in French space policy said that it was time to shake up the European Space Agency and make it more like the US space agency (NASA) by giving it a new, politically-led direction

The official said that Europe was in danger of becoming redundant in global space terms and it needed an agency that followed a clear political agenda.

“The United States, Russia, China and Japan would not do what they do in space without a political motivation; Europe has only had a scientific motivation until now. So what we are saying is, let’s get the same chances as the others.

But while the BBC reads this shift in emphasis as from ‘scientific’ to ‘political’, the Financial Times focused on the small print – interpreting the announcement as a move towards a ‘military angle for space strategy’;

French ambitions range from setting up an EU spy satellite system to joining a manned US mission to Mars.

Paris wants to exploit synergies with existing civilian space projects. For example, Galileo, the €3.4bn ($5.4bn, £2.7bn) rival to the UScontrolled global positioning system, is classed as a transport project, although it could be used for military operations.

Hmm. The European Space Agency’s most recent press release on Gallileo mentions nothing of military applications, focusing instead on the five civilian services;

the Open Service, the Safety of Life Service, the Commercial Service, the Public Regulated Service, and the Search and Rescue Service.

Now, why does this make me uneasy?*

[image by thewritingzone]

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[ * Only kidding – I’m a total Galileo fanboy. Of course, if Sarkozy were a Doctor Who / Bond villain, Bruce Sterling’s obsession with said Gallic premier could be explained as the result of some kind of sinister mind control laser… ]