22 July 2021
Watch This Space
By Paul Branch
Much has been happening in space this past month, both near and far, and of course in such a high tech area many more developments are to be expected to excite the mind and stimulate the juices. Some will be beneficial, either to the collective good of mankind or to enhance personal fortunes. Others will stir pangs of anxiety and uncertainty, so let’s start on the darker side.
Those who had put away their England football worry beads after last week’s defeat in the Euros final might like to make sure they know which drawer they’re in as we get to grips with another event which may prove even more nerve-wracking. There’s 78 billion kilograms worth of asteroid called Bennu on a collision course with Mother Earth, and the probability of a direct hit and total annihilation of our planet has been assessed at 2700 to 1. So about the same odds as catching a nasty dose of Covid now that F-Day is done and dusted.
But fear not – there are intrepid space explorers starting to rediscover the outer realms of the universe as a means of possible escape, provided NASA can find us a suitable planet on which to relocate. First Richard Branson, now Jeff Bezos, have been on organised tourist trips up, up and away to a heady and weightless height of 100 km into orbit on journeys into space costing billions. When asked if this expenditure might have been put to better use on, say, research into climate change (that other little worry just around the corner), Branson defended it with claims that satellites and spacecraft in general are central to monitoring global warming and finding a solution to the onrushing crisis. In his view then we need more ventures like his and not fewer. Branson neglected to explain just how his intergalactic holiday charabanc project is in any way even remotely relevant, other than through the general development of space technology which might someday, somehow be a factor.
Jeff Bezos on the other hand was much more direct, claiming on touchdown after a whole 11 minutes in orbit, that for him it had been the best day ever. His partners on the flight made for an interesting crew: his brother Mark; 82-year old Wally Funk, a lady pioneer of space exploration; and 18 year old student Oliver Daemen, son of a Dutch private equity financier who had been originally booked on the second flight. The intended occupant of the fourth seat on the maiden voyage won his ticket in an open auction where he bid $28 million for it, only to subsequently find there was a diary scheduling conflict … let’s hope he had adequate travel insurance.
Elsewhere in space, that other orbital entrepreneur Elon Musk has been expanding his Starlink satellite fleet apace. Musk claims that by August he should be able to provide phone and broadband data connections to anywhere on the surface of the Earth, via his 1800 spacecraft … unless you’re in the polar regions. To date he has nearly 70,000 customers helping check out the system. Over the next 12 months Musk expects there to be half a million punters, but sadly penguins aren’t among them. Not to worry though – our very own UK taxpayer-funded OneWeb satellite system, rescued from bankruptcy, has also been busy, with over 200 satellites aloft and plans to cover regions above 50 degrees latitude. These include the more remote areas of the UK, ocean-going vessels exploiting the new polar routes made possible by climate change and shrinking ice, and thankfully those parts inhabited only by penguins. Starlink and OneWeb will soon be joined by Project Kuiper, a satellite system for rural areas inspired by the ubiquitous Jeff Bezos and delivered by Amazon. Something that all these aspiring communications providers have yet to quantify convincingly though is just how many phone calls and internet connections they can support reliably at any given time. With all that hardware in space and all those expectant customers on the ground and at sea, providing adequate communications capacity will be tricky without considerably more investment in terrestrial infrastructure. Those essential extra billions might just play havoc with the business model and investor confidence.
Away from the commercial exploitation of space and into the realms of research and discovery, one particular piece of equipment has been central to finding out about the galaxy and for developing theories concerning our life in the universe and that of our planetary neighbours. The venerable but hitherto reliable Hubble space telescope has been the mainstay of astronomy and astrophysics for over 30 years, but recently a fault developed that took it offline, to the consternation of scientists around the world. One might ask what did they expect after all that time and operating in such a hostile environment .. with terrestrial equipment you’re lucky to get three years warranty. But all is now restored, thanks to the on-board back-up hardware provided for just such in-orbit failures, the robust telemonitoring which was able to pinpoint the problem, and the equally sturdy telecommand system which switched out the failed components and switched in the back-up kit.
Which is good to know because the telescope and other instruments like it will be useful in pinpointing just what’s happening to that pesky onrushing Bennu asteroid, but luckily help is at hand. Scientists in China are considering launching a host of their Long March 5 rockets as a trial run for diverting the asteroid from its projected collision course with Earth. They calculate that 23 of these rockets launched simultaneously and each weighing 900 tonnes would knock it off course by 9000 kilometres, enough to save the planet. Pounding it with nuclear warheads would only compound the problem and increase the likelihood of collision: the asteroid would smash into smithereens but rather large ones, each of which could do us untold damage. Kinetic energy then is the answer, to deflect rather than destroy. However the imminent dummy run involving a sky-full of rockets launched simultaneously from China might just give the wrong impression to their Pacific neighbours. Japan has already been warned of megaserious, possibly nuclear consequences should they even think of lifting a finger in the event China makes a serious play for Taiwan, and this message naturally extends to Japan’s US allies. Let’s hope the experiment is well coordinated with nothing being lost in translation.
If their experiment proves to be a non-provocative success, it’s estimated that China will need at least ten years to further develop the electric propulsion capability of their rocketry for the ultimate encounter with Bennu. The collision problem raises its ugly head into the realms of reality once the asteroid gets within 7.5 million kilometres of us, which the Chinese scientists don’t expect to happen for a while yet. Somewhere between the year 2175 and 2199 is their current best guess, by which time England might just have won another major football competition. So if we’re still around for that, the worry beads might be difficult to find.