Feb 25th 2022: Ukraine Invasion – SpaceX, Problem and Solution
Le Roi Soleil at Versailles in the Upside Down.
I’m serious, but not in the way you think. Hold my beer.
A decade ago, you could have said Russia had achieved a kind of victory in space. Yes, it lost the race to the Moon, but forty years on it was launching all the world’s astronauts (and many of the satellites too). Now SpaceX have proven that innovation beats rugged simplicity in the end, owning a market that was Russia’s just a few years ago.
The impact goes way beyond a loss of revenue for Roscosmos and a fountain of bile from its boss. Thanks to SpaceX, the U.S. space industry has rejuvenated, attracting the best young engineering talent to a mass of innovative and energetic startups. Implications for the broader aerospace industry – including space-based warfare and surveillance - are profound.
In terms of human and natural resources, Russia could certainly compete. The problem is Putin’s system. Russia’s rejection of Musk’s attempts to partner with them in the early days are emblematic of the failure of a business culture based on statis and corruption instead of investment and innovation.
Tell me your country can’t compete without telling me – install a ten metre table in your faux Versailles then invade your neighbours. Of course, Putin could invest the oil trillions in Russia’s tech industries instead, rich as they are in brilliant engineers, then come down hard on cronyism and corruption. But that’s anathema to a Cold War warrior like Putin. Instead, Putin clearly believes that Russia’s only option is to return to a full command economy behind a new and newly re-enlarged iron curtain.
One of Tesla’s biggest short-sellers capitulated when he saw the queues for Tesla’s recruitment booth. Therein lies a solution: forget war and sanctions, just offer Russia’s brightest and best a visa and a job at SpaceX.
Feb 12th 2022: More Big Scopes to Look Through, Please!
I’ve just returned from another US astro’ road trip with some inspiring big-scope viewing, so it’s on my mind. Then I received a kind email from a reader who likes my descriptions of looking through big observatory scopes. That’s great ‘cos it’s a become a bit of a pre-occupation for me.
Views through the biggest scopes aren’t always as amazing as you’d expect (which can be interesting in itself), but sometimes they really are. Highlights include: masses of structure in the Crab and Spirograph nebulae plus the moons of Uranus through the Struve 82” at McDonald (above); Hubble-image detail on Mars, Galileo Regio on Ganymede, Saturn’s Encke division and the Alpine Valley Rille with the Mt Wilson 60”.
My big-scope views have all been either through century-old instruments from the golden age of visual astronomy, or through smaller (16-36”) modern RCs bought or re-purposed as mixed-use outreach instruments. But I’ve just discovered a third possible pool of large telescopes for observing.
In the sixties, NASA funded several large long-focal-length classical Cassegrains for lunar mapping to support Apollo. With small fields of view and slow photographic speed, these aren’t ideal for modern astrophysics, but would make great visual instruments.
I know of one – the 61” on Mt Bigelow, part of the Steward Observatory – which has had an eyepiece in it. Great solar system reviews were reported. But there are others, for example the 31” NURO telescope at Lowell’s Anderson Mesa site. Meanwhile, Lowell’s 72” Perkins Telescope is also a long-f Classical Cassegrain and seems to be struggling for work at a super-cheap $800/night, a sum easily exceedable with a public observing session.
I’m hoping that if some of these fall out of professional use, their owners will consider converting them (at least part-time like the Struve 82”) for visual outreach, allowing new generations of astronomers to witness with their own eyes what they could only otherwise see in photos.
Jan 13th 2022: Is Software Eating Your Bino’s?
Stock Sony image.
I’m a believer in the maxim that profound tech’ changes are overestimated short term and underestimated long term. So when a WSJ journo’ wrote ‘Software is eating the world’ a decade ago, everyone got excited for five minutes, concluded ‘yeah, not really’ and moved on; long term, he was undoubtedly right though.
So what about our little world of optics then? One famous reviewer was predicting electronic (i.e. fully sensor-based) binoculars even back then and such things do exist in the form of Sony’s DEVs. They haven’t caught on yet, mostly because they’re still very expensive. But a couple of things converged this week to get me thinking that’s the future, like it or not.
The first was a message from a friend who’d discovered his new iPhone now did astrophotography using automated stacking. I’ll doubtless buy one soon. Software is inexorably eating my DSLR.
Then a reader emailed me to say something that’s been troubling me for a while too. He’d loved the view through a pair of NL Pures, but feared he’d spend big on them only to reach for his stabilised Canons every time he actually went out to view.
Same. You see, I’m off on another observing trip soon (fate and irony willing) and I’ve decided to pack my Canon 12x36 IS bino’s again. You might find this surprising, since the 12x42 NL Pures are currently my favourite ever binocular view. But in reality, stabilisation just reveals more, even if the view isn’t as wide, beautiful and immersive. Last time I was able to spot the historic V-2 bunkhouse deep in the White Sands Missile range with the 12x36s. With the NL Pures I probably wouldn’t have.
Hopefully as part of this trip I’ll re-visit Lowell Observatory (if it re-opens in time), where one of their outreach instruments uses an integrating video camera to give near-real-time views of DSOs that the naked eye never could.
Put these things together and I suspect that by 2035 most serious binocular users will never see actual light from the thing they’re viewing. Amateur astronomers the same. I’ll moan that this is somehow the march of Meta - RL replaced by VR. I’ll keep a few pieces of cherished optics. But when I go out to view, it’ll be through some combo of optics, sensors and processors. All driven by software, of course.
Dear Sony, please could I have a pair of DEV-50s to review ‘cos I can’t afford them (yet).
Dec 18th 2021: Can you see Venus’ Crescent tonight?
“Can you see Uranus?” is a popular question when I’m astronomising publicly, but a more interesting question is “Can you see Venus?”
Well, obviously you say. But what I mean is can you see its phase? With your naked eyes? I’d read that it’s possible, but never convinced myself.
Then yesterday, on a cold but very clear night testing some scopes at the top of our local fell, we were looking at Venus setting into the orange sunset over the sea and my wife suddenly announced that she could see the crescent.
So I squinted and strained and... no, not really. Well, maybe.
It got me wondering, how many people can do this (my wife does have excellent vision)? The thing is that now, when Venus is close and large (52” as I write) and a thin crescent, is the ideal time (see above for its simulated phase for tonight).
So, give it a try! It’s a great example of how you can have a lot of fun doing astronomy with no gear at all. You’ll find Venus as the brightest star by far, low in the west just after sunset.
If you can (or if you can’t) make out the crescent with your naked eyes, please let me know. If I can get enough responses, I’ll publish the stats.
November 27th 2021: More of this please!
This is the first blog post I’ve made in six months. That’s not because I lost interest or had nothing to say. I’ve just struggled to find any free time at all over summer and early autumn. Really? Really. You see, 2021 has been the busiest and most stressful year I can recall. Full-on doesn’t even touch it.
Most recently the culprit has been a tentative return to education, or so I supposed. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for years and to make up for lost time I threw myself in at the deep end. It’s been rewarding certainly, but hugely time consuming.
But the course hasn’t been my main problem this year. To say I’ve sold one home and bought two others doesn’t begin to account for a hell of multiple moves and the aftermath of endless paperwork, DIY and decorating. And all that following a short but “interesting” period of homelessness in hotels with no astronomy at all.
What has this to do with ScopeViews? Everything really, because that’s what precipitated it all.
Low planets in recent years compounded the problem of living in a valley with high horizons. Meanwhile the trees in the woodland to the south had grown taller ... and taller. So my permanent set-up just wasn’t getting as much use as it had. Free time had already become a problem too: maintaining my ageing house and large, high-maintenance garden were swallowing much too much of it: “I don’t want to repair the damned terrace, I want to go watch an eclipse from the Atacama!”
Then I had a bit of an epiphany.
Before lockdown I had been doing quite a lot of travel to dark sky sites and observatories, mainly in the US. It had made me realise just how poor my seeing often was: quite dark but often too turbulent for high magnifications. Then there was the weather. Britain is famous for rain anyway, but up here it can rain for weeks. Finally, living so far north means no truly dark skies at all in late spring and early summer.
Then on the last trip to the US I enjoyed night after night of clear, dark and steady skies, with incredible birding and nature viewing by day. I wanted more of that, a lot more.
So I made the (very) tough decision to let my permanent setup go – at least for now - and return to peripatetic astronomy, with more time and opportunity to travel - to great skies yes, but for birding and nature viewing too.
How will this affect ScopeViews? More astronomy travel, I hope - to dark sky sites and observatories; eclipses too. More reviews of smaller, more portable gear, including an AP Stowaway at last! More viewing through the remaining big visual instruments from the Edwardian golden age of visual astronomy. More reviews of binoculars from the very best and most challenging locations.
Exciting times ahead, fates willing of course.
April 29th 2021: Elon Musk is an alien, ‘obv’ – and this week proves it
I love Elon because IMO he’s the only hope for humans on Mars in my lifetime. Many people hate him, though, and one reason is that he refuses to behave. Specifically, he refuses to play the part of august and serious CEO and VIP. And in that refusal, he subverts and devalues those things. Elon can be downright childish and un-PC; worse, he’s not remotely sorry.
This week was a perfect example. Someone, no one like the rest of us, tweeted to ask if he’s alien. Elon tweeted back, ‘obv’. But oftentimes, when serious journo’s ask serious questions about his giant business empire, he doesn’t even bother to respond. Aaaaarrrrrgh!
But in a way, that ‘obv’ was true. Because in a way Elon really is an alien and this week’s events prove it. Because whilst most of us slow down as we age, Elon is accelerating at full plaid.
Yesterday was the fifth anniversary of SpaceX’s first successful booster landing on a barge; since then, they’ve done it 56 times and counting. This year all their launches have been on a used rocket. Nine days ago, Starship SN11 exploded in mid-air; yesterday SN15 was already on the pad. Two days ago, the latest batch of Starlink launched and Shotwell announced near global coverage; eighteen months ago, ‘experts’ said Starlink was a fantasy.
And that’s just a week at one arm of ‘Musk Industries’ (think giant dystopian pyramid and Vangelis at the opening of Bladerunner and hold that thought).
Today, Neuralink released a video of a chunky monkey playing a video game with its mind, whilst mainlining banana smoothy in a virtual forest. Last summer the naysayers were all ‘Neuralink is BS’, but today’s casual Elon-tweets suggest life-changing innovations coming fast for the severely disabled.
Down in ‘Vegas, meanwhile, the Boring Company has today announced completion of its first cheap underground rapid transit for the cost of a small bus fleet. Yes, for now it’s basically Teslas in tunnels, but autonomous shuttle buses will surely follow. I bought my Boring Company cap back when it was an Elon joke.
And that’s not to mention ‘ex-growth-company’ Tesla posting 103% y-on-y for Q1. But that was ages ago, right? Six days, actually.
How do you feel about this warp-speed innovation? I love it, obv. But it really, really winds some people up. Yesterday, a Tesla-enthusiast tech’ journalist called Joanna Crider was goaded on Twitter to kill herself by an ex-VW marketing exec.
How could so much love, fear, loathing, expectation and anticipation, bile and hatred and yes sheer progress, derive from the humungous dreams of one bullied South African schoolboy? Is it because Elon really is an alien? Obv.
Wednesday March 24th 2021: No Bernie, Space Travel isn’t just an ‘exciting idea’
A couple of my areas of interest collided this week. The first was an eruption in Iceland, not far from Grindavik in a beautiful if desolate part of the Reykjanes Peninsular that I’ve visited. Volcanoes are a lifelong fascination for me and I wrote a book about them. If not for lock-down I’d have been on a plane to Iceland by now. But it also reminded me how unpredictable eruptions remain, despite improved monitoring techniques.
The predictability problem isn’t really an issue for eruptions like the current one: modest, gentle effusions of liquid lava like this are the least dangerous kind and are classified as VEI 0 or ‘Hawaiian’ – the first rung of the logarithmic Volcanic Explosivity Index.
The biggest risk is from eruptions at the other end of the scale. The very largest have a VEI of 8 and are termed Ultra-Plinian (Pliny was a classical author who witnessed an eruption of Vesuvius). There hasn’t been a VEI 8 eruption for some 27,000 years, but there are a number of volcanic centres that could potentially produce one and we might not get a huge amount of warning; even if we did, there isn’t that much we could do.
You see, the problem with a VEI 8 eruption is that it would have global climatic effects, possibly catastrophic ones for human civilisation. It’s an example of an existential risk that couldn’t be mitigated with known technology. There are others, many astronomical in nature, including such diverse threats as a rogue comet or extra-solar asteroid; perhaps even a freak solar flare.
Then there are various human risks, such as technology accidents. Such accidents have been mooted as a chilling explanation for the Fermi Paradox. A leading expert in existential risk, Nick Bostrom, put it this way:
“It is not farfetched to suppose that there might be some possible technology which is such that (a) virtually all sufficiently advanced civilizations eventually discover it and (b) its discovery leads almost universally to existential disaster.”
As I’ve written in a previous blog post, the overall existential risk we face is surprisingly large, maybe 20% over the next century. Most of the component risks that can’t be mitigated by any other means can be by just one – Elon’s goal of becoming multi-planetary. And just like any insurance policy, it’s too late to buy once the actual risk hoves into view, we have to get started now.
And that’s why I was triggered by Bernie Sanders’ recent tweet that space travel is just an ‘exciting idea’. No, Bernie, it really isn’t. And that belief – that the money is better spent on social programs and other (genuinely worthy) causes here on Earth - is one that gets trotted out a lot by the Left. It also happens to be dead wrong, thanks to the uncomfortable reality of existential risk.
As I tweeted back, social equality isn’t much use if we’re extinct. Unexpected Big Nature events, like Iceland’s eruption, should remind us that our world isn’t quite the safe haven we’d like to think. Politicians, left or right, should heed the warning; maybe the one from the pandemic too: civilisation and even human existence is surprisingly fragile and we shouldn’t have all our proverbial eggs in one planetary basket.
Sunday 21st March 2021: National Park Clear-cut on UN Forest Day
There’s a local beauty spot that I use(d) a lot for testing optics: full of wildlife and birds at close range, it’s got wonderful long-distance views too. You’ll see the place in my reviews, a mix of wooded crags and forest paths clustered around a reservoir. Except last Friday they clear-cut it. Today, two days later, it’s the UN’s International Day of Forests.
The extraordinary thing is that the devasted landscape you see above lies deep inside the Lake District National Park, a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and a World Heritage Site, famous home of Romantic poet William Wordsworth.
Now you’d think that when they need to take timber out of a national park, they’d use sensitive selective methods, but no. They got in this machine from John Deare that does just amazing damage – rips up the soil and under-storey down to a metre across the whole site and leaves it strewn with smashed wood and stumps like the army tested tanks on it.
I suspect that Federal authorities would never permit this in a US NP, so why does it happen here? Jobs? I’d guess a man week per year, tops. Money? If the whole area yields as much gross profit as a local B&B I’d be surprised. Carbon sink when it re-grows, maybe? From the volume of smashed timber left to rot and the soil damage, I doubt it.
It is, however, typical of the UK’s two-faced attitude to the environment. This is the same county (Cumbria) where up until last week they were planning to open a new coal mine. What’s the point of UN Forest Days and Davos summits if nothing changes on the ground?
Meanwhile, all the birds and deer I once came to view have departed to leave a wasteland. But if a local resident wants to change the colour of their front door, they’ll need planning permission.
Monday 1st March 2021: I Saw Starlink Last Night and it Wasn’t Good
I’m a fan of SpaceX, especially their plans to colonise Mars. People think it’s crazy, it’s not. Experts like Nick Bostrom think the risk of human extinction this century might be as high as 20%. Elon is right: to mitigate that risk, we have to expand off-world.
Starlink is a big part of those multi-planetary plans. Launch services just won’t fund Elon’s Mars ambitions. And for me Starlink has personal meaning too. I live in the countryside and our internet is terrible. I was without any connectivity for three months last year and wasted countless days battling Vodafone. It’s still almost never good enough for streaming radio, never mind Netflix. I need Starlink. So I’ve hesitated to join all the criticism.
I actually haven’t seen Starlink myself since a year ago when I took the photo above. Then last Sunday night I did, quite by accident.
I was testing some Zeiss binoculars in the dark-sky hour before Moon rise, at about 6:30 p.m. My view was the region of Auriga around the open clusters M36 and M38 (the Pinwheel and Starfish). A satellite shot through from west to east, then another and another: a continuous stream of them seconds apart. This went on... and on: Starlink.
The interesting thing is that those Starlink satellites all followed closely on the same path, right past bright star Phi Aurigae, so I was able to compare their brightness. And it isn’t good news. By now, the sunshade and black paint mitigation efforts have presumably been implemented. But those satellites were still much brighter than I’d like. In terms of magnitude, Starlink can’t have been fainter than about 6-7, possibly even 5-6. And there really were a lot of them.
Even for a binocular astronomer, Starlink was distracting. If I’d been taking subs, they would have been useless. Was I unlucky to catch the Starlink train lower than their target altitude? Maybe. But it’s starting to look like Starlink – great news for people struggling without decent internet access – really is bad news for astronomy.
But here’s the thing. From the press hate you’d think constellations like Starlink are a plague sent by Elon. They aren’t. Other companies, including Amazon and One Web aren’t far behind. And as a professional astronomer recently pointed out – at least Starlink are listening and trying to mitigate. Will Amazon be as responsive?
I’m worried ...
Sat 20th Feb 2021: Is a Flying Tesla just ‘more Elon BS’?
The press has a short memory, so when it picked up a few Elon tweets about a flying Tesla this week it acted like this is more capricious fantasy and BS from their love-to-hate billionaire, dreamed up over a late-night joint. In fact, Elon first mooted a SpaceX version of the upcoming Tesla Roadster over two years ago. I know this for sure because Scope Views has had an article about it since Jan 2019.
In the latest round of sneer-and-smear, various journo’s have waded in with their opinions on how impossible a flying Tesla is. Significantly, though, I have yet to find much analysis of the actual physics or engineering: ‘cos, you know, that degree in Media Studies makes you far more expert on rocketry then all those SpaceX engineers with PhDs from MIT, right?
Well, no, actually. As a physics and engineering problem, the question of whether SpaceX technology could allow a Roadster to lift off, hover at a few metres above ground, then drift across a car park, is easily analysed. I’ve updated my original article with some new figures provided by Musk and it’s clear – like it or not, a hovering Roadster is entirely feasible from a physics and engineering standpoint. Don’t approve? That’s a different issue ...
You can read my updated piece on the physics here (BTW, I’m not a rocket scientist either. If you are, then feedback most welcome!):
22nd January 2021: Is Wide the New Normal?
No, I’m not writing about the obesity crisis (although I did put on a few pounds over Christmas). Instead, I want to ask myself (and you too) if we’re so used to wide fields of view that it’s near impossible to go back.
I’m shopping for a pair of 7x42s as my regular walking/birding glass to replace the Zeiss Victorys I regret selling. I was tempted by a pair of Swarovski Habichts. I tested the 10x40s a while back and liked them, but the 7x42s are even simpler, even more pared to the minimum - something that suits my lockdown mood.
I like the Habichts’ retro’ style and low price (for a Swaro’). I appreciate the fact that I could get them serviced locally if necessary. I really like the idea of a pair of bino’s with only five lenses between eye and view (yes, really – they have a basic doublet objective and a three-element Kellner eyepiece), that have unrivalled transmissivity and very low weight as the result.
The Habichts’ do have a big downside, though - a very narrow field by modern standards, just 46° apparent. That means their true FOV is the same as the 12x42 NL Pures. I’ve tried to convey this in the title image by showing it on the FOV of the 8x42 NL Pures: you really do lose a huge area of view. Still, I’d been convincing myself it’d be fine. After all, that’s how FOVs were when I started observing. Then something happened to change my mind, when I was out testing a new scope last night.
In schizoid opposition to my own advice, I do prefer simpler eyepieces for monocular planetary viewing with the best telescopes. In particular, I favour the TMB Monocentric which has just two air-glass surfaces (it’s a cemented triplet). The difference is marginal, but I think I can perceive it – a very slightly sharper, more contrasty and richly coloured image of Mars for example. However, the Monocentric has a narrow field of view as the price for its outstanding on-axis performance, rather like those Swarovski Habichts in fact.
Usually, I only ever use the Mono’s for planets, where field of view isn’t even really noticeable, let alone important. But on this occasion, I swung the scope from Mars over to the nearby Moon without bothering to swap eyepieces. And oh dear. I habitually view the Moon with an 80° Nagler or a 100° Ethos because I love the porthole, lunar-module-window, view. But that narrow FOV just ruined it. Sorry to sound like a TeleVue ad’, but gone was the majesty and awe, absent the sense of being Michael Collins alone with the Moon’s rugged primordial grandeur. Now I was looking at a picture in my lunar atlas through a straw.
So, for the Moon at least, I’ve been spoiled. I can’t go back to the narrow Huygens eyepieces of my childhood Tasco. But what about bino’s? No coincidence, I suspect, that most of my favourites recently have had wider fields. The Meopta 7x50s were an exception, but there it was the hugely comfortable eye relief I loved, something those simple Habicht Kellners don’t have either.
So could I live with a 46° FOV in return for light weight and a super-bright view? We’ll see, as the Zen Dojo said, but I’m not optimistic.
11th January 2021: Dreaming of another Astro Road Trip
Early January just isn’t a great time of year, any year, never mind a pandemic. But for 2021 we can add Covid uncertainty and lockdown fatigue to Divorce Day and Blue Monday. This time last year I decided to do something about it, moving my planned big road trip from the usual spring/summer into winter. It was a bit of a leap into the unknown. I’ve driven maybe 50K miles in the US over so many road trips I’ve literally lost count. But I’ve never done one in the snow and freezing temperatures of a Rocky Mountain February. We Brits aren’t really used to driving in the snow. How do you fit chains, anyway (don’t laugh)?
It certainly threw up a few moments. Snowshoeing and wildlife viewing in the Yellowstone backcountry at minus twenty, I found myself going all drowsy and just made it back to the car. I discovered the hard way that tap water plus motel shampoo just ain’t gonna cut it as winter screen wash. My first car’s engine warning light came on in a blizzard south of Billings Montana and I prayed all the way to the airport Hertz desk. Driving the loneliest road, in pitch darkness and even thicker snow west of Cimarron NM, a herd of deer leapt into my lane. By the time I reached Raton that night the snow was so thick I was the only car on the interstate. Still, I had the best time, from the moment I opened the curtains of my Denver airport motel onto snowy prairie and a rising Moon.
Icy trails and birding at Rocky Mountain Arsenal NWR. Incredible big telescope, dark sky views at Lowell, Kitt Peak and McDonald. I found the Project Paperclip V2 blockhouse deep in the White Sands Missile Range with my Canon bino’s and got chased away from the Blue Origin ranch near Van Horn. It was all spooky-no-Mulder on a weird late night visit to the Marfa Lights viewing area; lonely landscape astrophotography from an isolated lookout in Arches NP proved a bit creepy too. I was disappointed not to get a look through the 20” Clark at Denver’s Chamberlin Observatory, but I’ll never forget the atmosphere on the observing floor with heavy snow whispering into the pines beyond the windows. Nothin’ finer than gazing at an icy Moon through a motel window with a cold bottle of Blue Moon in one hand, a pack of hot Tapatio Doritos in the other.
Despite my worries and too much on-piste driving, maybe my favourite road trip ever. So much so, I’d planned to repeat it this winter, with a coast-to-coast trip stopping off at more observatories, more landscape astro’ in the red rock deserts of Utah and Arizona; maybe see how things are progressing at SpaceX Boca Chica and Spaceport America. Nothing doing though. Locked down again and all the observatories’ public viewing programs shut down.
So here I am, looking at the photos, reminiscing and dreaming when I’ve got a backlog of binoculars to review.
20th December 2020: How To See The Jupiter Saturn Conjunction
You’ll most likely have read about this, so I’ll be brief with the intro’. This Monday (21st) will see an unusually close conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn. Planetary conjunctions are fairly common, but ones close enough that they look like a single star are not – this will be the first for centuries. It’s particularly timely, too, because a few days before Christmas it brings to mind the Star of Bethlehem, one theory for which is a close conjunction just like this one.
So how to see it? This is a bit tricky, because in northern latitudes Jupiter and Saturn are low in the south west just after sunset. From London, the pair will be at just 17° altitude at 1500, dropping to 14° at 1600. From more northerly areas it will appear even lower. So for most places in northern Europe, you’ll need a viewing spot with a clear southern horizon. Realistically for me and many this will mean up a hill!
You need to be in position and set up (if you’re using a scope and/or camera) by about 1530 GMT. The best views will likely be between 1550 (sunset) and 1650. For the most spectacular view in a dark sky, you might get lucky between 1700 and 1800, but it will be very low by then (just a few degrees above the horizon).
The images above simulate the view at 1530 from London. The blue circle represents a 1° field of view for reference – roughly what you’d get in a small refractor at about 80x magnification.
If you don’t have a scope (or can’t be bothered lugging one up a hill), bino’s should split the pair, whilst the naked eye view should be a very bright single star.
As you can see, Monday and Tuesday are almost equally good, but the pairing diverges rapidly from Wenesday. Still, Christmas Eve (Thurs) currently looks good for weather and still well worth the effort. If you’re locked down for Covid, make it part of your exercise walk! Good luck!
4th December 2020: Chang’e-5 – Yes, but where the heck is Mons Rümker?
SpaceX has been getting most of the space news lately, as usual. But one of the most exciting missions of late 2020 is actually China’s Chang’e-5 to return a core sample from the Moon. If successful it will be the first time we’ve had a fresh lunar sample to study since the USSR’s Luna 24 mission in August 1976.
It’s a complicated mission, involving a two part lander that looks and works a lot like the Apollo Lunar Module. That Chang’e-5 lander has successfully touched down and is preparing to launch its sample back into orbit and from there (hopefully) to a landing back on Earth in the Mongolian steppes.
But if you’ve been following the coverage, you may have found yourself asking, ‘touched down where exactly’? The answer is a ‘unique complex of volcanic lunar domes’ (the largest such on the Moon) called Mons Rümker, but where the heck is that?
You’d be forgiven for not knowing, because Mons Rümker is an important formation, but not a very easy one to find – binoculars certainly won’t show it and casually observing with a telescope you’re unlikely to stumble across it either. Mons Rümker is located in the far north west, in Sinus Roris, just off the limb of the Moon’s visible face, to the west of the famous Bay of Rainbows (Sinus Iridium).
I’ve marked the location on a photo from my own library of lunar phases, taken on the 13th day of a lunation – the best time to find Mons Rümker. If you want to try to find the place where Chang’e-5 landed for yourself, the best days of the lunation are probably between the 12th and 14th days of a lunar cycle. The domes of Mons Rümker are low and rounded and show up best when they’re near the terminator (the Moon’s day/night dividing line), when the long shadows bring them into sharper relief. Your next such opportunity (and last this year) will be from the 28th-30th of this month. Try it!
28th November 2020: Impossible Tech
(The NYT has form here – a few decades later they said rockets wouldn’t work in space).
just reviewed Swarovski’s new NL Pure binoculars. They achieved something I
thought was impossible – a 70° flat field in a birding bino’. This
week, SpaceX launched and landed an orbital booster for the seventh time; lots
of people said that was impossible too. Meanwhile, the MSM churn out pieces
saying self driving cars are impossible, but I watch
a guy called Joel Johnson taking spooky long night drives completely alone as a
matter of routine (Joel’s taken over sixty now, check this video out, you’ll be
So what’s going on? Of course, some pundits just don’t know what they’re talking about (looking at you Rory), but there’s something more profound at work. To understand it we need to go back almost fifty years.
In 1973 the eminent Cambridge mathematician James Lighthill published what became known as The Lighthill Report. In it, Lighthill basically trashed the entire nascent field of A.I. He later presented a televised lecture covering similar topics. Lighthill based his arguments on sound maths – he cited the ‘combinatorial explosion’ inherent in non-trivial A.I. tasks like facial recognition and natural language processing, even playing masterly chess, as the reason none of those things were feasible. Trouble is, fifty years later my phone does those things with free apps. What happened?
Lighthill was certainly an ‘expert’, he held the Mathematics chair at Cambridge later occupied by Stephen Hawking. His reasoning was sound too, given the technology of the time. But right there’s the problem.
Saying ‘faster than light travel is impossible’ is based on a set of equations, a complete physics of the problem. It could be wrong, but if so the fundamental physics must be wrong in some way. To claim that facial recognition is impossible ignores numerous assumptions not about physics but about technology. In mathematical terms, there are too many variables in the equations, with assumed values that may be very wrong. When Lighthill refers to a ‘very large computer’ he means something orders of magnitude less powerful than the one in my toaster. Tellingly, Lighthill refers to ‘specialised neural networks of extreme complexity which there is no question of imitating’. It’s that ‘no question ...’ clause which betrayed him.
I actually think something else was at work here too – emotion. I think James Lighthill was a brilliant intellect and took pride in being one. He refers to the ‘uniqueness of Man’. I think he hated the idea that a machine might be superior at things he held dear as part of his intellectual pride, playing chess perhaps. I think you can see this in his lecture – Lighthill may have been brilliant, but his rambling, populist rhetoric employs cheap sophistry, including ‘argument by bombast‘ – a sure sign of a shaky argument since 400 BCE. Lighthill sneers in his cut glass English, the audience giggles; fate loves irony.
So next time you read a headline saying some tech’ is impossible, remember James Lighthill.
21st November 2020: Seventy Degrees - SW NL Pure and TV Panoptic
Almost exactly a decade ago, I published an open letter to the Alpha bino’ makers, challenging them to deliver the following:
· No visible in-focus CA
· An apparent field of 70° or more
· A field which is sharp, flat, bright and coma-free to the edge
· Eye relief of at least 16 mm
· Minimal blackouts (spherical aberration of the exit pupil in technical terms)
· A focuser as smooth, fast and accurate as Nikon’s HG range
· All the usual features, such as waterproofing, twist-up eyecups, etc
I’d become fed up with reviewing astro’ telescopes systems that performed on a different level to my binoculars.
Not long after, Swarovski launched the Swarovision ELs which featured most of these things, except for the field of view. What we got was 60° - an improvement of just a few degrees on the best flat field models like Nikon’s SEs.
Now 60° is pretty yawn in the world of astronomical eyepieces, the entry level for Tele Vue’s range. Back then they’d just launched the Ethos with 100°, although even I admitted they’d struggle fitting two of those optical grenades in a pair of ELs. Still, a quick play with Tele Vue’s eyepiece calculator suggested a ~70° field from a binocular-spec telescope should be possible with another venerable eyepiece design, the 68° Panoptic. Specifically, a 19mm Panoptic (see above) would give about the right numbers with a 42mm objective of ~F3.5 and crucially it wouldn’t be too large for a bino’ barrel.
So I waited, expectantly, hopefully, for a 70° EL based on a Panoptic-like eyepiece design. And I waited ... and waited.
Eventually, we got the Zeiss SF with a few degrees more than the EL, but still not 70° and not really as flat as I’d like for astronomy either. Leica’s Noctivid was no better. I am no optics designer and I started to assume I’d missed something, maybe prism vignetting or something, that meant it just wasn’t possible. Then last year, Nikon’s WXs seemed to confirm it. Here was a 10x50 with 70°, but it was gigantic! Maybe my dream of a truly wide field birding bino’ just wasn’t optically possible.
Funny how things often happen right after you’ve finally given up. Because a few weeks ago, Swarovski launched the NL Pure as a successor to the EL as a top-of-the-range birding binocular. And here in the NL Pure at last was a 70° field, even (almost) in the 8x model to give a whopping 9.1° true field – the maximum of any current binocular that I know of. And by the way, the NL Pure finally fully ticks all of my original boxes too ... just a decade late. Something good finally came out of 2020.
18th November 2020: SpaceX Pad Problems
Flame Trench below Pad 39A, with Falcon Heavy above it, taken by me in 2019.
Seeing pads 38 and 39A at the KSC up close last year made me realise what massive structures they really are. And no wonder. Launch pads take one hell of a battering. When SpaceX took over historic Apollo Pad 39A at Cape Canaveral, from which Crew-1 launched on Sunday, they did lots of work to the service structure and built the futuristic new crew access arm. Less publicised was the work it had needed underneath. The giant flame trench (see photo above) and deflector had suffered damage and erosion since the Apollo years and lots of refractory bricks had to be renewed.
Ironically, given all the new technology in Starship, it now seems it wasn’t the rocket or its Raptor engines that caused the spectacular failure during a static fire in Texas a few days before Crew-1, but a much more mundane technology – the refractory coating half a continent away at the Boca Chica launch pad.
In case you missed the event, the static fire – always a spectacular flame fest – threw up unexpected sprays of huge sparks. Afterwards, molten metal was seen dripping from an engine and later a one-use valve on the nose burst to relieve pressure that had been building since the static fire. Many assumed some engine problem and one of the Raptors was indeed replaced the next day.
Yesterday, Elon finally tweeted the surprising root cause of all the trouble: not a Raptor failure per se, but the coating of Martyte on the pad, which had smashed into ‘blade-like’ shards that flew up into the engine bay and severed an avionics cable (Martyte is a proprietary name for some kind of ceramic coating intended to protect the concrete). Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised. Those loose Pad 39A bricks are said to have reached 680 mph during a final Shuttle Launch.
Loss of avionics then led to all sorts of trouble. First, one of the Raptors suffered a bad shutdown: presumably the complex full-flow Raptor engine needs a specific sequence of shutdown events, perhaps to prevent a pre-burner meltdown, hence the dripping metal. But even that wasn’t the end of it. Next, the severed cable prevented valves from opening to allow a normal detank. Pressure built up in one of the header tanks and would have ‘popped the cork’ (per Elon), had it not been for a burst-disc emergency valve which did its job.
Elon has announced that in future avionics cables will be run in metal pipes to protect them and that they will water-cool the pad (instead of the Martyte?) But the ultimate moral of all this may be that SpaceX is pushing its luck with the simple pad design it’s been using at Boca Chica – just a support of girders above flat concrete, with no flame deflector or trench. Past static fires and launches with a single Raptor have caused problems, presumably hence the Martyte. But given this latest failure and likely protracted exposure to the blast from three Raptors (with close to the combined thrust of a Falcon 9) during the next launch, it may be that SpaceX will have to start using the massive pad, under construction nearby for the heavy booster, sooner rather than later.
12th November 2020: As Crew-1 nears launch, press FUD is at Max-Q
When I typed SpaceX into Google this morning, I was hoping for news on the upcoming Crew-1 mission, the static fire tests at Boca Chica. What I got first was this hate piece on Elon from the Daily Mail. It’s far from unique. SpaceX ‘fanbois’ like me call this ‘FUD’ for the fear, uncertainty and doubt it seeks to spread about Musk and his ventures. Whenever there’s a big SpaceX event coming up and there’s no launch failure to concern troll or disaffected employee to interview, it’s back to the old standby of smearing Elon.
If you think that hit piece from the DM is as low as the gutter press can go, think again. Far deeper in the journalistic sewer was a recent article about Musk in Vanity Fair, that called him a vainglorious psychopath and ended by mocking him for purported mental health issues. If you really believed Elon was mentally ill, would you troll him for it? For clicks? Vainglorious psychopath right back atcha. Then there was a third rate tech blog which ran with ‘Elon Musk is kind of a Dick’. I could go on. It’s journalism at its ugliest.
Now admittedly, these outlets aren’t exactly the pinnacle of journalism, even for someone whose greatest literary achievement is their own Wikipedia bio’. Still, that level of hatred begs the simple question, ‘why?’.
Some of the hate, especially from members of certain Twitter groups, derives from bitterness over short-selling losses on Tesla. Other hangers on to the same groups are conspiracy theorists who convince each other it’s all some kind of gigantic fraud which they have a mission to out. But tellingly, when Tesla competitor Nikola’s CEO resigned last month under allegations of actual systemic fraud (and sexual misconduct too), the press response was, ‘meh’.
Another group are all men in their thirties. The Vanity Fair guy is one of them. It’s a Freudian thing with them. It’s a difficult age for guys – marriage, kids, career angst. And Musk – with his big rocket and billions and beautiful women – just makes them feel inadequate and under endowed. The result is as feral as a ram in rutting season spotting another with lower hanging opportunities.
In truth, more worrying are the ‘serious’ journalists that relentlessly attack Musk and his companies as their day job. Some if not all of these are being paid to do it, some with the collusion of editors, some not. Who’s paying? Hedge funds with big short positions are the prime culprit. Next are disrupted industries – at least one smear piece was traced back to Boeing (no surprise). I wonder about Russia. The chief of Roscosmos, Dmitry Rozogin, is known to loathe Musk. Meanwhile, one of the most prominent anti-Tesla Journos has a Russian surname.
Pinned to the top of Elon’s Twitter feed was the same tweet for weeks. It read simply, ‘We must pass the great filter’. This refers to the Fermi Paradox and the idea that some kind of filter sifts out civilisations before they can become spacefaring. It is the primary motivation for SpaceX. Mad? Not at all. Given that the risk of human extinction in the next century is estimated at ~20%, the number of lives at stake - the billions alive now and the countless potential trillions unborn - is incomprehensibly immense. For this reason, reducing that risk, even by a tiny amount, equates to millions saved. Conversely, increasing it, even by a tiny amount, is like annihilating a multitude.
Seen in that context, and given SpaceX’s mission to reduce existential risk by making us multi-planetary, all the sneering FUD doesn’t seem like such innocent bully-boy fun. I guess few if any SpaceX-smearing journos – uneducated in science as most sadly are - look in the mirror and see a perpetrator of crimes against humanity. But maybe they should.
31st October 2020 - Full Moon Halloween
It’s Halloween again, but what is Halloween anyway? Halloween is short for Hallowe’en – All Hallows’ Eve. In this case, ‘hallow’ is old English for saint: Nov 1st is the Christian feast of All Saints Day and has been for over a thousand years. The spooky bit comes in because it’s also the start of the season when Christians remember the dead, including the now-famous ‘Day of the Dead’ celebrations in Mexico.
So why am I writing about Halloween? Turns out this year’s Halloween will be a bit special (and not only because of Covid). In an event described as ‘once per generation’, Halloween coincides with full moon tonight (and indeed the next Halloween full moon won’t be until 2039).
Werewolves are said to transform at full moon (Potter fans will remember what happened to Remus Lupin), so I guess a Halloween full moon has an extra spooky feel. And for rural kids not in lockdown it’ll give a welcome flood of silvery light for that trick-or-treat trip down the dark and rutted track to the local haunted house ...
Sadly, full moon really isn’t a great time for astronomers – its light floods the sky and blots out all but the brightest stars and pretty much all deep sky objects, for both observers and imagers. It isn’t even a good time to observe the moon itself, because no shadows mean a flattened landscape without the usual drama of mountains, craters and rilles to explore.
It’s still worth taking a look at the full moon, though, with the brilliant rays arcing across its face and all the dark maria on view. Trouble is, the full moon is blindingly bright in almost any telescope or even larger binos. One way to view it is with a filter of some kind. Moon filters once shipped with every scope, but they’re a bit of a rarity these days, though ‘neutral density’ or ‘polarising’ filters do much the same thing.
One great way I’ve discovered to enjoy the full moon is through a (preferably good quality) pair of miniature binoculars, typically 8x20 or 10x25. The small aperture makes the view much less blinding and helps you pick out all the main features. If you’ve got a pair, try it!
However, there is something astronomers can still enjoy at full moon – planets. And right now, that pretty much means Mars. Easy to find tonight, it’s the bright orange (not red!) star to the right of the full Moon.
Mars is about as close and large as it will be for many years, so it’s a great time to view. Even binos will show that it isn’t a star and the smallest telescope should show some vague dark markings on the surface and perhaps the tiny bright south polar cap. What’s more, from mid evening the most prominent and famous of Mars’ dark markings will be on display – the triangular region called Syrtis Major.
Last but not least, if it turns out clear tonight and you don’t do anything else, get out into some dark countryside and experience just how brightly the full moon lights up field and lane and copse. If you’ve never experienced this, I guarantee a surprise, one given some extra spookiness by Halloween. And if you should hear a hideous screech, it’s probably not a werewolf, just the local (female) Tawny owl, or maybe a roosting pheasant ... probably.
28th January 2020 – I say XD, you say HD, let’s call the whole thing off!
Back in the mists of time, my favourite binoculars were Nikon’s HG range for their meltingly beautiful and immersive view, their super-twirly focuser. But the HGs had an Achilles’ heel. The goddess must have neglected to dip one of their lens elements in the Styx because they had too much false colour.
Then came the ‘HD’ revolution. Technological progress meant high fluoride special-dispersion glass became cheaper and easier to polish. Binoculars started having objectives with it to follow the trend started (arguably) by Takahashi in consumer telescopes thirty years before.
Thing is though, Takahashi were typically thorough with their branding. Their original triplets without ED glass were labelled ‘Semi Apochromat’, fluorite doublets ‘Apochromat’, ED triplets ‘Super Apochromat and finally double-ED triplets ‘Ortho Apochromat’. I mention this because I do wish bino’ makers would be similarly consistent.
I recently reviewed a pair of ‘HD’ binoculars with significantly more false colour than another makers’ non-HD. Kowa labelled their double-EDs ‘XD’, but Zeiss called theirs ‘HT’; meanwhile Swarovski’s 56mm SLCs with similarly low false colour were still just ‘HD’. I am just finishing a review of some ‘UHDs’ which actually have too much chromatic aberration, at the same time as some ‘HDs’ which have almost none.
This situation is confusing for customers. Just as one binocular’s 15mm of eye relief will be another’s 18mm, so one binoculars ‘HD’ will be another’s ‘XD’. The only way to find out how much false colour you’ll get in advance is go into a shop and point them at a light (I immediately split Zeiss’ Conquest HDs and Leica’s Trinovid HDs this way). Or read my reviews!
1st January 2020 – Elon Musk photobombed my New Year!
The first properly clear sky in weeks saw me braving the New Year’s Eve frost yesterday evening to take some long-exposure photos of the dusk sky with my new Samyang 20mm f1.8 lens. It was a beautiful evening, with a crescent Moon and Venus setting into a pale blue twilight. And that was the point – my last Samyang lens went back because it produced terrible flare on Venus and I wanted to be sure this one didn’t do the same.
So there I was, in our darkening lane, hoping no drunk drivers came along and working around the local Christmas lights, taking frame after frame of test shots. Only when I downloaded them this morning did I notice a series of punctuated trails following each other across the sky at about 5:30 p.m.
I Immediately suspected I’d inadvertently captured SpaceX’s train of 100+ Starlink internet satellites, which have garnered a lot of negative press recently for ‘spoiling’ the night sky and interfering with astronomy. A quick check online confirmed it.
Ironically, I’d been planning a blog post about Starlink for a while. Now I’m not sure what to think about it.
On the one hand, I hadn’t spotted the satellites with my naked eyes (still pretty sharp according to my optician, despite my years) and Elon has promised to coat future iterations with a non-reflective paint to make them less visible. What’s more, they only appeared in my images for a period of about 5 minutes.
On the other hand, between SpaceX, Amazon and OneWeb, there will eventually be thousands of the things up there. I don’t think this will be too much of an issue for professionals, who typically image small areas of sky and usually aren’t bothered about aesthetics. However, landscape astrophotographers in particular may soon find it almost impossible to take those ethereal ‘Lonely Speck’ images of wilderness vistas beneath a pristine Milky Way. Enthusiastic though I am about improved internet in rural areas and about SpaceX’s long-term goals, which Starlink will help fund, that would be a minor tragedy.
Saturday December 7th 2019 - Another Irrelevant Apollo Anniversary?
A Twitter storm erupted a few days ago because the singer Billie Eilish “admitted” in an interview that she had no idea who Van Halen was. Look, I’m old and I get that. After all, Van Halen’s first and best album launched forty years ago. But if Van Halen are “irrelevant” to Billie and her generation, what about Apollo? Because in the era of VH1, Apollo was already old news and fast fading into history. Meanwhile, Billie is just 17 … coincidentally.
The big Apollo anniversary was back in July, but today we have another, much more low-key one: 47 years ago today, Apollo 17’s Saturn V left Pad 39A in a night-time blaze of … what? Glory? Because that was the end. Not only the end of Apollo, but of deep space exploration. Put it another way – on the 20th December (two days after Billie turns 18) no one under the age of 47 was alive when a human last walked on the Moon.
I decided to write about it only because of one thing. When I went looking for images from Apollo 17 – that incredible shot of the lunar rover on the edge of a crater abyss, for example – I quickly got into conspiracy theories about how it was all faked. It amazes me how people still re-hash that one, because the real mystery is right there in plain sight and they’re ignoring it. The mystery of why, really, we have never been back. The longer it goes on the more preposterous it seems, to me anyway.
If you think of time as linear, stretching in both directions, we are as far from Apollo now as the era of great refractors when professional astronomy was still done with an eyepiece.
Appropriately, if it’s clear where you are, look out and you’ll see a nice gibbous Moon overhead tonight – an Apollo Moon as some used to call it. Grab your binos or a telescope and find the bright crater Proclus with its V-shaped rays on the edge of Mare Crisium. Just to the west lies Taurus Littrow and the Apollo 17 landing site (follow the arrow). There’s no one there, hasn’t been for 47 years. That’s thirty years before pop icon Billie Eilish was even born. Irrelevant like Dave Lee Roth and the boys, now grown old as everyone (even Billie Eilish, even Eugene Cernan) does? I hope not.
Saturday 23rd November 2019 – The World’s Most Expensive Binoculars?
I was idly surfing around on a Japanese astro’ shop website the other day, when I noticed a pair of Nikon bino’s I didn’t recognise. They looked a bit odd and so I delved further to find a remarkable new model.
The good news is that Nikon have produced the first dedicated high-end hand-held astronomy binocular since the Prostar, something binocular makers generally don’t do because the market is just too small. The bad news … we’ll come back to that. First, I’ll take a look at the WX’s features and compare them to other premium binoculars.
These new Nikons glory in the catchy name ‘WX’ and there are two models, a 7x50 and a 10x50. Traditional then and oddly so because only those unusual and lucky to have truly dark skies would get much from a pair of 7x50s for astronomy these days. I would have hoped for a 12x50 or a 15x56, but no.
Nikon market a few special features for these WXs. For a start they have two ED elements in the lenses to suppress false colour. But then so do a pair of £1000 Kowa XDs. The WXs also have field flatteners; just like Swarovski ELs, Zeiss SFs, or even Canon 15x50s. The WXs use Abbe-Konig prisms, like the Swaro’ SLCs again. But probably the most unusual thing is the eyepieces that give these binoculars their odd appearance – those eyepieces are huge.
Nikon say they’ve re-purposed their NAV eyepiece technology for the WX. In case you’re not aware of Nikon’s NAVs, the two flagship models make a Tele Vue Ethos look small and cheap. Those two have a field of 102° and eye relief of 16mm, which does make them quite special. For the WXs, though, their NAV eyepieces ‘only’ give fields of 66° and 76° for the 7x and 10x models respectively.
For optical reasons it is hard to get wide fields in a 7x50, but Zeiss managed 60° from their 7x42FLs more than a decade ago. The latest birding binoculars like Zeiss SFs and Leica Noctivids manage 64° in normal sized binoculars. So Nikon haven’t exactly knocked it out of the park with the WXs. The eye relief of 15mm again looks good too, but similar to other excellent designs like Swarovski’s 10x56 SLCs.
No, the most remarkable thing, honestly, about the Nikon WXs is their price. When I first noticed them, it seemed someone at Kyoei Osaka had put the decimal point in the wrong place. Except they hadn’t. The WXs cost … wait for it … £6199 on Nikon’s UK website. Because £6200 would have sounded too expensive, right?
Let’s put that in perspective. Ok, they’ve got NAV. So two NAV eyepieces of that spec’ (not the 102° monsters) would be about £600 for a pair. Now for the prism assembly, let’s take the price of the Zeiss Mark V binoviewer – maybe £1200. Finally, we have two premium 50mm apochromatic objectives. For those we could take a pair of Borg (made by Canon) 55FLs for a further £1000 the pair. For the housings and accessories, we’ll allow another £500. Totting that lot up, I get £3300 – about 50% up on a pair of premium birding binoculars.
How Nikon get to £6199 I don’t know. It reminds me uncomfortably of the Tele Vue Apollo. Unless Nikon would care to lend me a pair to review, I am unlikely to be able to report on whether the WX’s are worth their astronomical price. Meanwhile, I can recommend a pair of Swarovski 10x56 SLCs.
Sunday 17th November 2019 – Mars returns
Mars hangs over the Extra-terrestrial Highway in 2016.
Early mornings often have the best seeing here, in the autumn and winter at least, when clear evenings see warm air boil off the land. So there I was a few mornings ago, up at five and doing some testing on my south-facing balcony and squaring up to Orion.
It’s a great time to be out, with no lights around and complete quiet to enjoy the night sky. Then, as dawn was extinguishing the stars in the west, I spotted a bright orange star just risen over the roofs. I was puzzled. Reaching for the binos, I realised. Not a star, Mars.
I haven’t thought about Mars much recently because 2019 has been an off year in the biannual cycle. Though 2016 and 2018 were the closest oppositions for a decade, Mars was too low to be readily visible from home and I’d had to travel to view it (see above). I wrote about my experiences viewing the 2016 opposition from the Desert Southwest in my book ‘The Roads from Mars Hill’.
2020 should be much better, with Mars reaching a good altitude for us northerners. Right now, Mars is only a few arcseconds across, but that will improve over the year leading up to opposition on October 14th 2020 when it will be 22.3” in size and will transit the Meridian at just after one in the morning at 41° altitude here – just perfect.
I strongly urge you to get out there and have a look at Mars next year, from spring onwards. It will be your best chance for a while. Try to spot some of the vague surface markings that for centuries were all we knew. Sure, you can see more with a planetary camera and careful stacking. Heck, just check out the high-res images being beamed back from Curiosity. But seeing in real time with your own eyes is important too.
I met a leading professional astronomer from UC Santa Cruz during my visit to Lick observatory this year, Ryan Foley. He told me that when he takes a team to one of the major observatories, he always gets them outside to actually view the night sky, something pro’s haven’t needed to do for half a century. That’s why he turns up to Lick viewing evenings sometimes. Ryan thinks it’s important and so do I.
If you don’t have a scope that isn’t too packed with advanced CCD and tracking gear to do the job, try to get a look at Mars from a star party or an observatory outreach session like the ones at Lick. The new decade may see Elon put a man on Mars if the stars align (well Starlink anyway) and there are some exciting discoveries happening around oxygen and methane. But the Real Mars for most of us will still be that brilliant orange star that reappears now and then, just when we’d forgotten it.
Sunday 29th Sept 2019 - Be More SR-71: Elon Reveals His Business Strategy
This morning (UK time) Elon Musk updated us on his plans for SpaceX’s deep space future in front of a gleaming silver retro starship. The whole thing was wonderfully surreal. The hour-long talk and Q&A held many interesting factoids and reveals, breathtaking stuff that many will scoff at, but that stand a fighting chance of coming true: millions of tons per year to orbit; double the thrust of a Saturn V; a Raptor engine built every day from 2020; renewable rocket fuel from solar power. Among all shock and wow, was an off the cuff comment that really caught my interest.
Elon’s business strategy has long perplexed old skool money men like Warren Buffett and his partner Charlie Munger. Munger, by the way, is on record as saying he would never hire Musk, as if that means something. I suspect Musk would rather flip burgers than work for a corporate bean counter like Munger. Anyway, Munger and Buffett believe in ‘moats’ – barriers to competition; Musk scorns them, saying that only the pace of innovation matters.
In last night’s presentation, Elon doubled down on that view with an evocative metaphor. Elon is a fan of aerospace history and lore and for his metaphor he chose the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird, the fastest plane ever. The SR-71 is a favourite of mine too. I saw one fly at Mildenhall airshow in the late Eighties and saw the same plane a couple of years back at the Blackbird Airpark at Palmdale (pic above). As Musk said, the SR-71’s only defence was to accelerate; it was literally able to outrun missiles. SpaceX and Tesla are doing the same: innovating, as Musk put it, at a recursively accelerating rate to outrun the competition like SLS and New Glenn too.
The pace of innovation at Musk’s companies may seem almost reckless at times and there are inevitable slip-ups. But overall, what SpaceX and Tesla have achieved in just the last decade is astounding. At Musk pointed out, Falcon 1 achieved orbit for the first time just eleven years ago yesterday. That break-neck rate of change and progress must be tough on Elon’s workers, but it makes his endeavours uniquely exciting for you and me to watch. If SpaceX and Tesla can survive the storm of negativity whipped up by the industries they are disrupting, who knows what another eleven years will bring.
NASA’s Jim Bridenstine just tweeted that SpaceX needs to deliver on Crew Dragon (even though Boeing hasn’t delivered either, at almost double the cost). Right back atcha, Jim: time for you to deliver on SLS, the ‘cheap’ expendable booster, based on existing hardware, that’s taken years, cost billions and still shows no signs of actually carrying a payload into orbit. Apollo went from zero to Moon in just seven years. The radical SR-71 was developed in just two years by Lockheed’s Skunkworks. Shame NASA can’t re-discover that 1960s sense of can-do.
Weds 26th September 2019 – T^4: Of Stars and Starship Heatshields
In a world of fake news, something you can do to keep grounded is to use basic science to figure out the truth. I like to do this and publish my workings here now and then. Sometimes these arguments get a bit technical, like the piece I wrote on why SpaceX might be able to make a Tesla Roadster fly (or at least hop). Today’s argument is simpler.
In a recent tweet about the heatshield of the new SpaceX Starship that is taking shape in Texas and soon to begin testing, Musk wrote, ‘let T^4 be your friend’. But what does that mean and why did he say it?
Musk was discussing the way Starship’s heatshield works. By building the ship’s outer skin from stainless steel, it can take much higher temperatures than the aluminium structure of say the Shuttle. This means far fewer ceramic tiles are needed for protection – just a few on leading edge surfaces, rather than across the whole shield area.
Now this ability for stainless steel to withstand approximately double the temperature that aluminium can without melting is even more significant than it seems and the reason is that T^4. It turns out that when something radiates - say a Starship heatshield or indeed a whole star – the power that it radiates away is governed by this simple equation:
P = AσT4
Where P is the power, A is the area, σ a constant (the Stefan Boltzmann Constant) and finally T the temperature. Elon Musk’s tweeted ‘T^4’ just means T4, i.e. T to the power four. In other words, the power radiated by Starship’s heatshield will be proportional to the fourth power of its temperature.
So, it means that the amount of power radiated away increases hugely with just a small increase in temperature and that’s exactly what you want to get rid of all that frictional heating on re-entry. Having the ability to withstand twice the temperature of an aluminium structure means a stainless one can radiate sixteen times as much energy in a given time.
And that’s the mad genius of Starship! Building it out of heavy stainless actually means you need a much lighter heatshield and all thanks to ‘T^4’ – Elon’s new BFF.
It also tells us something interesting about stars: hotter ones radiate much more energy than cooler ones and that’s why big hot stars have very short lives, small cool ones very long ones. If you’re radiating much more energy, you’re using your fuel much faster and it will ‘run out’ much sooner. A hot super-giant might have a lifetime of just millions of years; a red dwarf will shine (dimly) almost forever.
Examples? The giant, unstable star Eta Carinae (title image), which I saw from Hawaii this year, is in the hottest class of stars (spectral class ‘O’). It radiates millions of times more energy than the Sun. It has lived less than three million years and is already reaching the end. Compare our nearest extra-solar star, Proxima Centauri. It is of the coolest spectral class (class ‘M’), a red dwarf. It radiates thousands of times less energy than our Sun and is already even older. Unlike Eta Carinae it will continue to glow for billions of years to come. This enormous difference in energy radiated is partially down to size and so surface area (the ‘A’ in the equation above), but mostly it’s down to that ‘T^4’ again.
Sometimes simple Physics has astounding implications.
Thursday 12th September 2019 – Porsche and Tesla, part Deux
Last week I wrote of my cynicism regarding the new ‘Tesla Killer’, the Porsche Taycan. The Taycan is doubtless a nice (though hideously expensive) motor, but my problem is its short range and good-but-not-best performance that suggest it’s a compliance car. Specifically, the Taycan’s range is roughly just 60% of a Tesla Model S, whilst its Nurburgring time is worse than the very fastest petrol saloons. My suspicion is that Porsche could have done better, but didn’t to protect their own gas-car sales.
Fast forward a week and Tesla have announced a new ‘Plaid’ drivetrain for the Model S, one that likely borrows the three-motor configuration from the upcoming Roadster (albeit without the ‘SpaceX’ option of thrusters!) The new drivetrain will go into a hot new Model S production car next year, Musk says.
Now my guess is that the Plaid drivetrain will introduce a much more significant piece of EV technology than three motors – supercapacitors, the tech’ Tesla recently acquired from Maxwell (if so, you read it first here!)
Supercaps have the ability to buffer very large current drain between battery and motors – just the kind you get with bursts of acceleration and regen’ braking on a track. The tech’ might work around battery temperature problems without heavy extra cooling, again ideal for track use. This might explain the delay with the Roadster too: Tesla are developing a whole new advanced drivetrain to be launched on the Model S first. So could the SpaceX package also get released first on the MS? Now I’m dreaming.
The new Model S has been spotted going ferociously on the Nurburgring and may attempt a hot lap with Nico Rosberg at the wheel Saturday week (21st). Already, though, it’s broken the Laguna Seca (a track you pass on the way to Monterey from Salinas in California) lap record for all four-door saloons, including Jaguar’s super-fast XE SV Project 8.
Now that last is the reason for this blog post. You see, the press haven’t picked it up, but it’s very significant because the Project 8 holds the current Nurburgring lap record for a saloon (any saloon, not just electric) at just over 7:18 (compare the much slower 7:42 for the Taycan).
The fact that the new Model S beat the Project 8’s time at Laguna suggests it might beat the Taycan by a wide margin at the ‘Ring next week. If it does it kinda proves my thesis that Porsche deliberately avoided breaking the time of their own fastest four-door, the Panamera Turbo. More importantly, it will be great for electric vehicles generally – the ‘hardcore smackdown’ Musk has been promising.
Wednesday 4th September 2019 – Taycan’t: Porsche, Apollo and Tesla
Right about now a famous German sports car brand is announcing a new model. It’s a giant glitzy launch across three continents simultaneously. The new car is Porsche’s first fully electric car, the ‘Taycan’. Porsche has been relentlessly promoting it for months. The culmination of all the hype and PR was an acceleration demonstration this week – from 0 to 90mph and back on the deck of an aircraft carrier; and not just any old carrier. The test was conducted by a top US racing driver on the USS Hornet, the very carrier which recovered the capsule of Apollo 11 from the Pacific fifty years ago last July. Porsche are clearly hoping for all the historical associations with pioneering ‘firsts’ and brave new technical feats that I am making right here.
The press is unreasonably excited about the new Porsche, which is widely anticipated as a ‘Tesla Killer’. Personally, I am much less excited and not because I am a Tesla fan. Indeed, if the Taycan were an honest project, I would be happy to see it steal Tesla sales (as, I think, would Elon himself). The problem is that – as I wrote some years ago – the Taycan is just more sleight-of-hand by the Volkswagen Group, the very same whose abhorrent ‘Dieselgate’ emissions cheating has likely killed thousands.
You see, just before that last climactic publicity stunt on the Hornet, Porsche took the Taycan to the Nurburgring and confirmed the suspicions I wrote about two years back. The Taycan is fast alright – slower than a Model S Performance in a drag race, but fast enough round a track to steal purists away from Tesla. However, the range-topping Taycan Turbo is crucially a little slower than the Panamera Turbo and 911 Turbo. And that’s unquestionably by design. Porsche could easily have made the Taycan into their highest performing car; but they haven’t and for a good reason.
Porsche hope to hurt Tesla without stealing sales from what really matters to them – their own lucrative combustion-engined models. Audi has pulled the same stunt with the recent e-Tron: a nice big SUV, but with too little range for mass appeal. Some Tesla customers (especially in Europe) will choose it over a Tesla X, but most will opt for a conventional Q5 or Q7. Similarly, the soon-to-launch VW ID hatchback is carefully placed to steal sales from the Tesla Model 3 at the top end and the Nissan Leaf at the bottom. But, tellingly, VW has left their best-selling Golf range untouched. The intention is clear, VW have no real interest in EVs.
Let’s be blunt: if Tesla died tomorrow, Volkswagen Group’s EVs would be left to languish and die – over-priced and under-sold into oblivion. If VW get their way, we will still be driving on fossil fuels when Greenland’s ice is gone and The Netherlands have returned to the North Sea. And that’s why I’m less than thrilled by the Porsche Taycan, even if they do want me to associate it with this year’s Apollo anniversary. As with astronautics, a revolution is required. And just as with SpaceX vs Boeing, only Tesla – love ‘em or hate ‘em – is going to provide it now, not ever-duplicitous VW.
31st August 2019 – SpaceX’s flying dustbin is a triumph: here’s why
Perhaps you watched the short flight of SpaceX’s prototype a few days ago. If so, you saw a silver cylinder with legs lift off in clouds of smoke and flame, climb 150m into the hot Texas air and settle back down on a different pad. That silver cylinder is ‘StarHopper’, aka the Flying Water Tower; but to me it looks more like an old-fashioned British dustbin. Either way it’s a strange kind of rocket and so far its achievement seems modest compared to, say, the twin boosters of a Falcon Heavy landing in unison. Where’s the triumph? To get a clue, watch the clip again and pay attention to the rocket exhaust.
StarHopper is a test-bed for technologies to be used in SpaceX’s next giant rocket, Starship. Most significant is the rocket engine, of which Starship’s Super Heavy booster may have as many as thirty, though StarHopper has just the one. That engine is ‘Raptor’.
Raptor has double the thrust of the Merlin engines which power Falcon 9, but much more significant is the way it achieves it. Back to that rocket exhaust. Did you notice how blue and clean it was? That’s because Raptor burns methane instead of kerosene.
Methane is a great fuel because of that clean burn, but also because it should be easier to make off-world. Other new rocket engines are being developed to burn methane, including Blue Origin’s BE-4, but Raptor’s tech’ is unique and getting it to work is a real triumph; to explain why, here’s an excerpt from my book ‘The Roads from Mars Hill’:
Rocket engines gulp fuel and oxidiser. To keep them fed needs high-capacity turbopumps. But how those pumps are powered varies. Cheapest and simplest is to use an electric motor run off a battery; but that only works for small engines. The V-2’s engine – the first large liquid fuelled rocket motor - used a separate combination of chemicals to power a gas turbine, but that adds weight and complexity.
Most modern rocket motors power their turbopumps on the same fuel and oxidiser as the main engine. Usually this involves a separate gas generator powering a gas turbine that drives the pumps. The gas generator typically runs rich to avoid ruinously high temperatures and vents its waste gases separately and uselessly. The F-1 and SpaceX Merlin engines (among many others) work this way. It’s a well-tried technology, but is relatively inefficient.
The Shuttle’s Rocketdyne RS-25 engines were more efficient because they fed those part-burnt gases from the turbine back into the main chamber for combustion with the rest of the fuel and oxidiser. That’s how Blue’s BE-4 works too. The RS-25 is the most efficient engine in current use, boding well for NASA’s future SLS which will re-purpose it, and for the BE-4 as well.
However, Raptor uses a still more efficient configuration that runs all the fuel and oxidiser for the main engine through a pre-burner stage that powers the gas turbines for the pumps. This scheme is termed ‘full-flow, staged combustion’. This is more efficient, largely because the propellants are already gases when they enter the main combustion chamber.
The extra efficiency of full flow staged combustion can drive performance, i.e. more thrust for the same fuel consumption. Alternatively, it offers lower stresses for the same thrust as a conventional design. It is also potentially more reliable anyway, because the turbines run cooler and at lower pressure and because it eliminates a key gas seal that can fail. Meanwhile, disadvantages include more components and much higher pressures in the main combustion chamber.
Given SpaceX’s need for aircraft-like reliability, a no-brainer then? Well no. You see, a full-flow, staged combustion rocket engine has never flown before. Some even believed it impossible. The last to be fully developed was the Russian RD-270 in the late Sixties and that never actually flew.
So, in typical Musk style, SpaceX has swallowed the big risk and achieved something truly ground-breaking with Raptor. Make no mistake, getting such a complex and temperamental engine design to work really is one of SpaceX’s greatest triumphs so far. Raptor could disrupt the space industry as much as SpaceX’s reusable boosters have.
Coincidentally (sarcasm alert), this same week Vanity Fair published an article entitled, ‘Elon Musk is full of shit …’.
No! No, Vanity Fair, no he really isn’t. And if you need proof, look no further than SpaceX’s incredibly risky and bold move with Raptor. But perhaps that’s the point. Elon’s seemingly super-human ability to take a giant risk and win does something else – it creates real fear among the competition, whose only response is weak and hateful gutter journalism.
3rd July 2019 – A revelation about SLS and Blue Origin?
NASA’s next big rocket intended for deep space missions, the Space Launch System or SLS, has attracted a lot of negative press. Compared to SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy, SLS’s development certainly seems both expensive and slow, especially since it uses existing hardware derived from the shuttle – main engines, fuel tank and solid fuelled boosters. SLS isn’t even reusable, apart from the capsule.
However, NASA is pressing ahead and yesterday the SLS passed a major milestone – a test of its launch abort system motors (see image above, taken last week). The test involved firing a mock-up capsule to launch speeds atop a re-purposed ballistic missile (a solid-fuel Peacemaker) and firing the motors that lift the capsule clear and re-orient it. The test seems to have gone well.
Beforehand, I attended a NASA presentation about the test at the Kennedy Space Centre Visitor Centre. Like those old ‘three people walk into a bar …’ jokes, the presentation was hosted by an engineer, a bean-counter and a PR rep’. In his introduction, the bean-counter let slip that Blue Origin, currently building a giant factory just outside the KSCVC gates, would likely have a ‘major role’ in SLS.
After the presentation, I asked what the role of Blue Origin might be. Would it perhaps be to build the lunar lander component? The response was revealing. The PR lady looked uncomfortable and immediately trotted out the company line that a number of private entities – including SpaceX - had been engaged to quote for SLS components, as per recent press releases. Meanwhile, the bean-counter literally and deliberately bit his lip whilst wearing an amused expression.
Does this suggest that Blue Origin has already been selected to deliver a major component of SLS and its lunar ‘Gateway’? I think it just might. Will a major announcement about lunar exploration be timed for the Apollo 11 50th anniversary in two weeks? Ditto.
15th June 2019 – Are the Great Refractors at risk?
Almost a decade ago I took a trip across America and as part of that trip I visited Yerkes observatory in Wisconsin.
Yerkes is famous for housing the largest refracting telescope of all (the lens for a larger one was made for the Paris Exhibition, but never mounted for astronomy). Yerkes is also special for its location – landscaped gardens next to a lake near wealthy suburbs, rather than some remote mountaintop. Yerkes buildings are also beautiful architecturally, in a way most built to be purely functional are not.
When I visited, the great 40” refractor (see my own photo above) was still being used for research. I toured the dome and took lots of pictures, but the telescope had clearly seen better days. Very sadly the observatory is now closed and the fate of the 40” very much in doubt. I heard a rumour the great Clark lens is in bad shape.
The second (I think) largest refractor is the 36” at Lick Observatory in California. A visit to Lick last week was a great experience and I even got to observe through it. But I got the impression that it too is in need of restoration. The mechanism that operates the movable observing floor is broken, making viewing of objects at lower altitude – like the planets over the next few years - difficult. The Selsyn pointing system isn’t working well anymore and the dedicated volunteers who run it have to use the setting circles and manual controls (in the dark, high atop the pier).
The risk to these instruments from the heyday of visual observing is clear – they no longer have a purpose in terms of professional astronomy and so funding is scarce or non-existent. When modern instruments become obsolete, they are unceremoniously decommissioned, a process I saw in action at Mauna Kea. But in terms of historical importance the great refractors are different: unlike modern professional astrographs, nothing like them will ever be built again.
Together with a one or two large early reflectors, the great refractors are also the only really big telescope you can look through these days. And much as I love small amateur scopes, there’s no doubt that a view through something much larger has the potential to amaze and inspire way beyond anything at a star party. Does that matter? I believe it does. Interestingly and surprisingly, so does at least one leading professional astronomer who was helping out at the Lick open evening I went to. He knows that a view through a big telescope is inspirational to the public in a visceral way that no instrument-derived result can be. I see this effect time and again when talking about astronomy to young people.
What to do? Perhaps there is a way to preserve these Victorian and Edwardian behemoths from the era of visual astronomy to inspire future generations. The key to preserving these great visual instruments might be the approach at Mount Wilson, where the 60” and 100” are kept in top working order, available to book for groups or individuals. What the Yerkes great refractor needs is restoration back to its original visual configuration, in the way recently undertaken at Lowell Observatory. It could then be funded with paid outreach sessions, similar to Mount Wilson, available to school and astronomy society groups with more serious interests, as well as for public viewing sessions. Perhaps Lick could do something similar, beyond its current open evenings.
James Lick was a wealthy businessman who funded Lick observatory basically as a personal memorial, where others might have funded a library or college. Could Yerkes likewise become the Bezos or Musk Observatory? Surely a great observatory – with stunning views or The Moon or Mars - would be a better venue for SpaceX or Blue Origin corporate PR than some Vegas casino. Jeff, Elon, how about it?
9th May 2019 - An Inspirational 1960s Ladybird Book – Exploring Space
Virgin Galactic’s long struggle to get a space tourism service going - from Mojave and Spaceport America - features in my recent book ‘The Roads from Mars Hill’. Virgin’s lead pilot is an ex Virgin Atlantic (my favourite airline, btw) pilot by the name of David Mackay who piloted VG’s second spaceflight in February. Mackay is just a few years older than me and grew up with the Sixties space race too, so perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised that the little book which so inspired his childhood space dreams was the very same one which inspired me. That book is Ladybird’s ‘Exploring Space’. I have two copies on my study bookshelf.
Exploring Space is a fantastic pictorial dive into space exploration as it was imagined mid-century. It features, amongst other things, finned rockets landing on a spiky Moon and visiting a Saturn-shaped space station. The paintings are all in the typical lush Ladybird style beloved by many (including James May) and that borrow from famous space artists of the time like Chesley Bonestell (another character in my book). Oh, how I loved those evocative silver rockets with their fins and fiery exhaust, aged six!
One curious thing about Exploring Space is that there are actually at least two versions. The one which so inspired David Mackay and me is the original 1964 edition with a Gemini Capsule on the cover. I also have a later version which air-brushes (or maybe actual paint brushes back then) Apollo hardware – the Lunar and Command modules and Saturn V booster - into the very same paintings that once dreamed of streamlined finned rockets. In that second edition, my favourite painting of all, of a rocket landing amid Lunar peaks, has sadly been deleted – no longer realistic in a post-Apollo world of dully-rounded lunar mountains.
That second edition of Exploring Space is a slightly sad reminder of how those fifties space ambitions kind of just stopped with Apollo. Now, the New Space movement, including Virgin Galactic, is starting to pick up those lost dreams. Elon Musk has said that fate loves irony and now SpaceX, another New Space company, is reviving the whole finned silver spaceship thing with a new rocket that consciously apes that pre-Space Race style. Right now, the first version of the new retro finned silver SpaceX Spaceship is testing in Texas. Could it be that one day the Exploring Space image of a finned rocket landing vertically on the Moon will become reality after all? David Mackay says that he’s been called a ‘dreamer’; me too.
4th May 2019 – Why Apple’s Project Titan may be more HAL than Herby
Apple has a project – Titan – that has been going for years, consumes billions and employs thousands. But nobody really knows what it’s for. People thought it was car. Then Tim Cook said it was ‘the mother of all AI projects’.
Currently, project Titan is believed to be a self-driving car. On the face of it this is a fact – the project has as many as thirty sensor-covered self-driving cars testing publicly in California. Apple has recently been touting for new Lidar sensors. The only question seems to be whether Titan is an actual car or just the self-driving software. Except that I have come to suspect it’s neither, but rather something much more sci-fi.
My suspicions stem from an unlikely source – the California Department for Motor Vehicles, or DMV. You see California requires all self-driving car companies testing in the state to submit a yearly report. That report includes various metrics, including the number of autonomous miles driven and the rate of disengagements. The latter is regarded as good way to determine whose cars are best, because it shows how far an autonomous car drives between incidents when the safety driver has to take control.
The rate of disengagements varies widely between companies, surprisingly so. Best is Google’s Waymo offshoot, whose modified Chrysler minivans manage some ten thousand miles between disengagements. Next come GM’s Cruise Automation, whose Chevy Bolts can go five thousand miles without help from a human. From there it’s a sliding scale through most of the other players in the field, including Uber, China’s Didi Chuxing, Bosch, VW, Delphi (Aptiv) and many others, some small and preppy, that read like a who’s-who of automotive and tech. Flat-out last is Apple.
Wait, what? Seriously? Apple, one of the world’s largest and richest tech’ companies with a track record in deep learning can’t even better some ten-programmer startup? Well, seemingly not. But in fact it’s worse than that. For Apple’s billion-dollar project with thousands of man years of development can’t even go a single mile without a disengagement. Project Titan is thousands of times worse than the front runners by this metric; it’s in a place where Google was almost a decade ago. By current self-driving standards, project Titan is risibly, embarrassingly bad.
It’s not just this one metric either. Navigant Research, who study self-driving, places Apple last-of-many as well. To me this isn’t only bizarre and improbable, it’s just not possible. Not, that is, unless Apple is doing something very, very different. And I think it is. I think Apple is developing the very thing Elon Musk and the late Stephen Hawking counselled against. I think Apple is developing a general AI.
Perhaps it’s a system; maybe a set of development tools. In either case, I suspect Apple is working on a general deep-learning AI that can teach itself new tasks based on simple, general rules and sensor inputs. This would explain the terrible self-driving performance and why Apple is pressing ahead despite it. If I’m right, Apple isn’t developing a dumb driving robot like Waymo and GM, Apple is building a flexible system that can teach itself to drive, starting with basic high-level rules and a road to practice on – much the way you learned to drive.
Why might Apple be attempting such a thing? Apart from the sheer intellectual challenge, something I think would appeal to Cook, the answer is the usual - time and money. It’s taken Google (Waymo) ten years, billions of dollars and huge effort to perfect its self-driving software with its complex system of coded rules and neural nets. Getting Waymo’s ‘driver’ to ‘learn’ a new city or foreign road system would likely take a long time and much labelling of data, training and testing. But if Apple can get a general AI to teach itself to drive, it should be quick to adapt to new driving situations and environments, much the way a human driver can. That would allow Apple’s self-driving project to scale far more quickly and cheaply than anyone else’s and perhaps dominate a trillion-dollar market in doing so.
And perhaps Apple’s general AI is learning to do lots of other lucrative, difficult things too, just things that aren’t as visible as thirty modified saloons covered in sensors.
Any other evidence? Just the circumstantial. Cook’s cryptic remark about the ‘mother of all AI projects’ was very suggestive. So is the name itself. For the Titans were the second race of Greek deities, succeeding the primordial race and preceding the Olympians. If so, then Apple’s ‘Next Big Thing’ may turn out to be more like 2001’s HAL than some dumb driving robot.
19th April 2019 – Climate Change
Climate change has been in the headlines this week: protests in London, Greta Thunberg’s powerful speech to the EU; and last night a special on BBC1. The latter doesn’t sound much, but it represents a huge change for the Beeb. Now off the fence, the BBC had ‘the most trusted man in Britain’, David Attenborough, unflinchingly present the ‘facts’. The FT found the film horrifying; to me it was mild.
Planetary scientists know that the worst could look more like sterile Venus than Attenborough’s ravaged Earth. The film mentioned some tipping points like methane in permafrost, but failed to mention others like ocean-floor clathrates that could accelerate heating into a human extinction. Finally, Attenborough was optimistic. Bless him, he’s that kind of man and we love him for it. Personally, I am less hopeful. You only have to type ‘Tesla’ into Google to understand that meaningful change will be impossible until the fossil-fuel lobby stops paying the likes of CNBC to smear anyone who dares to threaten the carbon status quo.
Alongside all the climate doom this week there has been a spot of good news: the Kakapos are breeding. The Kakapo is a large and bemused flightless parrot that has been pushed to the edge of extinction by climate change and other factors. They only breed every few years, but such was their enthusiasm this season that one even mated with a photographer’s head. It’s a cute clip, check it out.
The problem with ‘Saving the Planet’ is that it sounds a lot like saving the Kakapos: nice to have and important, yes, but hardly worth disrupting the traffic for. In fact, geologists and planetary scientists know that the physical planet has endured far worse than we could ever throw at it. Extinction Rebellion at least have that right: the issue is not the planet, but life, of the extinction of countless species like the Kakapo, but also one a lot closer to home.
Couched in those terms, even the most sociopathic hedge fund manager (yes, David Einhorn, I mean you) could understand what’s at stake. Surely even the most rabid Tesla-hating analyst could get that human extinction might threaten his favourite stocks. Yet this week we’ve added more mainstream denial to the Trumpian roll-call: the ever-handsome Richard Madeley questioning David Attenborough’s authority; Sky’s Adam Boulton, whose English degree informed his dismissal of climate change activism as ‘trying to tell us how to live our lives’.
For me, a key turning point in tackling climate change would be to mandate interviewers and pundits with a scientific background. Whatever you think of Extinction Rebellion’s methods, having an ignoramus like Boulton debating climate change on his terms is a sick joke. But perhaps it’s worse than simple ignorance. After all, Boulton is friends with the ex-CEO of BP. Years ago I was a bit sceptical about climate change. A long talk with an eminent geology professor put me straight. We need to listen to scientists, not corpulent Tories with a Big Oil agenda.
The burning of Notre Dame this week saw me impotently shouting ‘just put it out!’ at the screen. Metaphor much? One silver lining is that a century ago the Parisians planted hundreds of oaks at Versailles in case Notre Dame one day needed them for a new roof. That was a forward-looking prescience we struggle with today, but which we will need in spades to tackle the existential threat we face.
18th April 2019 – Maundy Thursday’s Asteroid
A month back, I wrote about the detection of a 173 kiloton detonation over the Bering Sea back in December 2018: the final act of a ten-metre meteor. I wrote at the time that the ultimate goal is to detect 90% of NEOs (Near Earth Asteroids) above 140m in size. Reading that the other way around means we are currently missing many NEOs smaller than 140m.
Just such an object is due to pass Earth at a distance of 136,000 miles - closer than the Moon - today. At a size NASA estimates at between 7.5m and 30m that’s just a little larger than the Bering Sea bolide. That may not sound big in planetary terms, but the energy released by a meteor of that size travelling at cosmic velocities could be in the megaton range. Such an impact wouldn’t risk human extinction, but could be catastrophic to a city, depending on the altitude at which it released its kinetic energy as a blast.
The disturbing thing about this is that NASA only discovered the object around ten days ago - much too little notice to do anything about it. And what could we do anyway? In another piece of news this week, one possible answer is a new mission given by NASA to SpaceX.
That mission is ‘DART’, which stands for ‘Double Asteroid Redirection Test’. The mission goal is to slam into an object of just the kind of hard-to-detect size range I’ve been talking about and redirect it. That DART target object is Didymoon, the 165m companion of NEO Didymos. In a real-life asteroid emergency, the plan would be to alter its orbit just enough to avoid a collision with Earth.
DART will launch atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 in June 2021, to impact Didymos over a year later in October 2022. Even if the mission works, we are still vulnerable to undetected asteroids of Didymos’ size in the meantime. Fingers crossed for the next few years, then. Seriously. Because if an asteroid of Didymoon (never mind Didymos) size did collide with Earth, it would reach the surface (unlike today’s encounter object, which would likely be too small). The result would be a detonation of Tsar Bomba magnitude.
Today is Maundy Thursday when Christians attend Tenebrae (‘darkness’ in Latin) services. Tweak the asteroid parameters a bit and today could really have been a day of darkness. So why we aren’t taking this threat more seriously? The answer is denialism – just ask Greta Thunberg. More on that tomorrow after we’ve watched David Attenborough at 9 pm on BBC1 tonight, a film about climate change which the FT described as ‘like a Horror Film’.
I’m not really a Christian, but I do like the music. The BBC has just announced that this year’s Proms will be space themed, but it will all doubtless be Holst and Ligety. If you want mood music more appropriate to the season and this week’s apocalyptic news (from asteroids to climate change and Notre Dame too), check out Tomas Luis de Victoria’s haunting ‘Tenebrae’.
14th April 2019 – Falcon Heavy and the Pace of Change
Cue the Test Shot Starfish. Then it’s sitting there live. Steaming. Hissing. Moments later and Falcon Heavy is thundering skywards again in a ridiculous burst of fire and smoke – the kind of spectacle not really seen since the last Saturn V, certainly not since the last Shuttle. But, of course, this isn’t a NASA rocket like the Saturn V or Shuttle; it was built by private finance. Make no mistake, this is a sea change in the space industry. Falcon Heavy 2 proved the first time was no fluke. A super-cheap heavy lift vehicle is now here. With Bezos spending his Amazon billions doing something similar, it’s a new reality for space. What happens next, no one really knows. As with so many other areas of modern life the pace of change is accelerating. I watched the last Shuttle on TV; FH2 was on my phone with Bluetooth earbuds.
I just bought my first vinyl LP in thirty years. It arrived on Record Shop Day, coincidentally. There are no record shops around here now. It came from Amazon. I bought it to compare my once-favoured way of listening to music with the kind of hi-res download I buy now. But apparently, downloading is now in turn at risk from streaming. A pundit on Radio 3’s Saturday morning show predicted hi-res streaming will take over. Before it does, I for one will need better broadband. And for that I’m looking to SpaceX and Bezos’s Blue Origin and their internet satellite constellation plans. Musk says those recovered FH boosters may launch the first batch.
Talking of Friday, Amazon and change, I watched the final Friday episode of Clarkson’s Grand Tour with very mixed feelings. The show was a funeral for Ford’s now-unloved Mondeo, but it turned out to be a funeral for the careers of Clarkson, May and Hammond too, at least as “serious” motoring journalists. The Grand Tour will be an occasional travel slot from now on. Perhaps thundering around a track in the latest BMW is going out of favour in the Tesla-led era of electric cars. The funeral at Lincoln Cathedral was surreal, as was Clarkson bursting into tears at the end of the show. No mercy for old formats from Amazon and Bezos: Boeing beware.
Meanwhile, clear and cold weather here has meant an unusual succession of clear skies: a whole quarter lunation’s worth. Yesterday saw the lovely telescope spectacle of a just-gibbous Moon in the Beehive Cluster. Yes, a few of us do still look through our telescopes … for now. But how long before it’s an augmented reality digital eyepiece, reality no longer?
Likewise, was FH2 a requiem for NASA and Boeing and the way things have always been done in space? With SLS and Starliner expensively delayed again, I reckon so. Perhaps I’ll go and play some Easter-appropriate lamentations or a requiem – as a hi-res lossless digital download obvs. Did you expect me to bother with an LP-and-needle? My daughter is on Spotify. The times they are a changin’.
8th April 2019 – Martian Methane
Whether or not Mars puffs out methane gas and if so whether it’s a biomarker is a big deal. I wrote the following in my recent book, ‘The Roads from Mars Hill’:
“Methane was discovered on Mars using infrared spectrometers on Earth-bound telescopes, including the 10m Keck II on Hawaii, in 2003 and 2006 (the discovery was published later, in 2009). The methane occurred in substantial plumes – much less than on Earth, but in releases of tens of thousands of tonnes. About 90% of the gas Methane on Earth is biotic (cow farts, mostly). But … the researchers were uncertain whether on Mars it was biotic (though not cow farts, one presumes), meteoritic or produced by some geochemical process.
Recent findings, based on measurements over several Martian years by an instrument on the ‘Curiosity’ Mars rover, confirm indications from the 2009 study that methane release is seasonal. Once again, this is suggestive of life, but still equivocal: meteor showers, seasonal melting or other periodic but abiotic processes may still be the methane source.”
Recently, Mars’ methane has been on and off like a dodgy wedding. Back at the end of last year, it was reported that ESA’s Trace Gas Orbiter had found absolutely ‘no trace’ of methane at Mars, throwing the whole thing into doubt. Now, the BBC reports that a different ESA orbiter, the older Mars Express, has detected another methane spike with its Planetary Fourier Spectrometer.
What’s going on? It seems likely that the methane source is not emitting continuously and perhaps only from specific areas of the planet at that. Still, this is big news for Mars fans and exobiologists. Confirmation of Mars methane would be another piece in the jigsaw of evidence for microbial life on Mars.
19th March 2019 – Meteor fireball detected off Kamchatka
Interesting news article on the BBC about a fireball detected on the 18th December last year in the Bering Sea off the east coast of Russia’s Kamchatka peninsula, a place I happen to know well. The fireball was detected by “military satellites” – presumably those monitoring for nuclear tests. Nothing seems to have been felt or reported locally (we sometimes forget how big Earth really is).
The interesting thing is the size of the explosion: 173 kilotons TNT equivalent, which is ten times the Hiroshima nuke and the second largest meteor detected in decades, almost half the size of the huge Chelyabinsk blast caught on all those Russian dashcams.
In this case, the meteor was just that – it exploded in the upper atmosphere (25.6 km alt) over the ocean. But it suggests we might not be as safe from small asteroids as we like to think now the near-Earth objects (NEOs) are supposedly mostly known. So how big was the meteoroid? We can get an idea from some simple physics, by assuming the energy released was all the kinetic energy of the meteoroid.
The news report suggests a speed of 32 km/s and we know the energy released in kt, so first we can first convert back to SI units. 32 km/s = 32000 m/s. The energy in joules of a ton of TNT (according to Wikipedia) is 4.184x109 J, so the energy released by the meteor was 173 x 1000 x 4.184x109 x 0.907 (tonnes/ton) = 6.565 x1014 J.
We can rearrange the kinetic energy equation, E = ½ mv2 in terms of mass to give m = 2E / v2
Then plugging our values back in, we get mmeteoroid = 2 x 6.565 x1014 / 320002 = 1282,000 kg.
Working back using density (probably between rock and iron) and volume, that gives a meteoroid likely less than ten metres across!
That’s really tiny! No wonder it wasn’t a tracked NEO asteroid! It’s chastening to realise how much kinetic energy such a small thing contains at cosmic velocities.
In, fact the BBC reports that the ultimate goal is to detect 90% of NEOs above 140m in size. However, an asteroid of that size would likely make it to ground level and would release many megatons of energy. Gulp.
17th March 2019
A local news outlet in Boca Chica is reporting that SpaceX’s Starship Hopper test bed is about to begin tethered tests of its Raptor engine(s). This is a big deal, because Raptor is completely new and the basis for SpaceX’s new Super Heavy/Starship launch system.
Raptor uses a design – full flow staged combustion – that is radical and has never flown. It should make the engine more efficient and/or more reliable.
Remote Boca Chica is on the far south tip of Texas, just east of the Mexican border, where SpaceX has a test facility on the coast.
14th March 2019
In my latest book, I write about the truly crazy situation that no human has been more than a few hundred miles from Earth in pushing fifty years. When and if we do, there may be no astronaut alive from the previous deep space era to greet the returning crew. Unless …
NASA has a planned (though likely un-crewed) circum-Lunar mission (you know, like Apollo 8 … in 1968!) next year, EM-1. But given the endless delays to the Space Launch System (SLS), I’ve never taken that very seriously. But now, reports are coming out that NASA may open it up to commercial tender. And that basically means ULA vs SpaceX (again).
If NASA sticks with the planned Orion capsule and service module, ULA would for sure need at least two and possibly three missions to hurl the hardware aloft on a Delta Heavy, which can only put about 10 tonnes into trans-lunar injection (TLI).
However, the situation with SpaceX is less clear. The weight of the capsule and service module at some 26 tonnes seems to be slightly beyond the limit for Falcon Heavy in fully expendable mode. From what I can see, Heavy could loft approx. 21 tonnes to TLI. Could SpaceX push the envelope (maybe with a Raptor for the second stage)? Or could SpaceX even get the Super-Heavy booster flying by then? Given their almost unbelievably aggressive development schedule so far, maybe.
Either way, if NASA decides to go commercial for this mission, it looks potentially good news for fans of deep space exploration: a successful un-crewed EM-1 might lead to a crewed version, esp. given SpaceX’s low costs. On the downside, it could be another nail in the proverbial for SLS.
12th March 2019
SpaceX has been in the news a lot lately. Meanwhile, Tesla is having another tough week, with the press again smearing Musk as some pot-smoking flake. Oddly, the same journalists write glowingly how SpaceX is saving the US manned space program. Hello! It’s the same guy!
Talking of SpaceX and Tesla, I wonder what the “… and one more thing” will be at Thursday’s big reveal of the Model Y? Could it be the SpaceX Roadster? Musk was tweeting (what else?) about it again last month.
In case you’re not up to speed, this will be a SpaceX branded version of Tesla’s new Roadster hypercar. The SpaceX Roadster will have cold gas thrusters like a SpaceX booster, powered by a SpaceX COPV. The thrusters should give the car extra acceleration (as if 1.9 seconds 0-60 isn’t quick enough) and perhaps better cornering and braking too.
Much more importantly (?!), Musk has promised those thrusters will let the SpaceX Roadster hover! I take a look at whether this is even possible in this short piece:
11th March 2019
My new book is now live on Amazon (Kindle only for now, paperback to follow):
9th March 2019
Gave my second talk of the week about the strange and fantastical legacy of Percival Lowell, the subject of my new book: The Roads from Mars Hill.
The audiences and venues were geographically close, but very different! First came a room full of nuclear physicists at the University of Manchester’s futuristic Dalton Institute Cumbria Facility. Second was my twice-a-year spot at Low Gillerthwaite Field Centre’s dark sky event: children, chickens, soup-and-parkin, muddy boots and a roaring fire.
8th March 2019
SpaceX’s perfect launch, docking and recovery of the Dragon capsule paves the way for US manned space flight again. More significantly for me, it gives SpaceX the headroom to focus on Starship, the Moon and Mars!