Wednesday, 31 December 2014


The landing of the Philae probe on Comet 67P on 12 November was a magnificent achievement. Despite the bumpy landing and early loss of signals due to lack of power from the solar panels, important scientific results are being obtained. One of the most significant relates to measurements of the water found on 67P:

Results show that the water on the comet is unlike that on our planet, and helps answer the question of whether a bombardment by comets brought water to earth billions of years ago.

Two mass spectrometers on Rosetta have been able to test the gas streaming off the surface of the comet. Findings indicate that the ratio of heavy water to 'ordinary' light water is three times higher than on the Earth.  Heavy water has the hydrogen atom replaced by the heavier atom of Deuterium.

Professor Kathrin Altwegg from the University of Bern said 'This means that this kind of comet could not have brought water to the Earth'.

Although previous research on other comets in different regions of the solar system have given different results,  Prof Altwegg believes that asteroids, which formed closer to the Sun than comets, seeded our oceans.

Comment: Although Philae is currently 'asleep' due to lack of power from its shaded solar panels, there is hope that as Comet 67P moves closer to the Sun the batteries will recharge sufficiently to enable further measurements to be made on the comet's surface. This has been a highly successful scientific mission already yielding valuable data which will extend our knowledge of the solar system.


Now the cutting Winter's come
'Tis but just to find a home,
In some shelter, dry and warm,
That will shield me from the storm.
Toiling in the naked fields,
Where no bush or shelter yields,
Needy Labour dithering stands,
Beats and blows his numbing hands;
And upon the crumping snows
Stamps, in vain, to warm his toes.

Comment:  A few lines from John Clare's poem 'Address to Plenty: In Winter'

Sunday, 2 November 2014


The ICCP Synthesis Report has been published in Copenhagen, as the Secretary-General of the United Nations said: 'Science has spoken. There is no ambiguity in their message. Leaders must act. Time is not on our side':

The Synthesis Report says the unrestricted use of fossil fuels should be phased out by 2100, if the world is to avoid dangerous climate change. Most of the world's electricity can, and must, be produced from low-carbon sources by 2050. 

If not, the world faces severe, pervasive and irreversible damage. Inaction would cost much more than taking the necessary action.

The Report states:

Warming is unequivocal and the human influence on climate is clear;
Since the 1950's the observed changes are unprecedented over decades to millennia;
The period from 1983 to 2012 was likely the warmest 30 year period of the last 1,400 years;
Warming impacts are already being seen around the globe, in the acidification of the oceans, the melting of arctic ice and poorer crop yields in may parts;
Without concerted action on carbon, temperatures will increase over the coming decades and could be almost 5 C above pre-industrial levels by the end of this century. 

Reducing emissions is crucial if global warming is to be limited to 2 C, the threshold of dangerous climate change.

The Report suggests renewables will have to grow from their current 30 % share to 80 %  of the power sector by 2050. In the longer term, fossil fuel power generation without carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology must be phased out almost entirely by 2100.

CCS is proving slow to develop. So far the world has only one commercially-operating plant of that type, in Canada, and progress making the technology widespread and affordable is far slower than many had hoped.

Comment: The message from science is clear. Now the 2015 Paris summit meeting must deliver a new global treaty on climate.

Saturday, 1 November 2014


Yet but awhile the slumbering weather flings
Its murky prison round – then winds wake loud;
With sudden stir the startled forest sings

Winter’s returning song – cloud races cloud,

And the horizon throws away its shroud,

Sweeping a stretching circle from the eye;

Storms upon storms in quick succession crowd,
And o’er the sameness of the purple sky

Heaven paints, with hurried hand, wild hues of every dye.
Comment: One verse from John Clare's 'November'



Friday, 31 October 2014

JOHN CLARE,  POET  (1793 - 1864)

“Saw three fellows at the end of Royce Wood who I found were laying out the plan for an ‘Iron rail way’ from Manchester to London – it is to cross over Round Oak Spring by Royce Wood Corner for Woodcroft Castle. I little thought that fresh intrusions woud interrupt & spoil my solitudes after the Inclosure they will despoil a boggy place that is famous for Orchises at Royce Wood end.”

The Journal 4 June 1825
From: The Natural History Prose Writings of John Clare. Edited by Margaret Grainger. Clarendon Press. 1983
Comment: John Clare's prose writing is less well known than his poetry. This brief extract retains his original spelling.


Scientist and officials of the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC) are meeting in Denmark preparing a Synthesis Report for release on Sunday:

The Synthesis Report will form a major document for the Paris Summit on climate change in Paris in 2015, when the UN hopes to deliver a new global treaty on climate change. It brings together three earlier reports by the IPPC on the physical science, the impacts and the potential methods of dealing with climate change.

Early drafts of the Synthesis Report indicate that it underlines again the near certainty of scientists about global warming and man's role in it. Each of the last three decades has been successively warmer at the Earth's surface than any preceding decade since 1850. According to the draft, the period between 1983 and 2012 was very likely the warmest thirty year period  of the last 800 years.

Comment: The Synthesis Report will need to address the tensions between the developed and developing world on tackling climate change.

Thursday, 30 October 2014


Comet Siding Spring made a close pass by Mars on 19 October:

This was a unique event: the first time a comet from the Oort Cloud has been observed close to a planet. Since there are a number of observation instruments on the Martian surface and in orbit, this was in effect an outpost scientific observatory on Mars able to gather data on the comet's approach. Siding Spring passed 139,500 km from Mars.

The Curiosity and Opportunity surface rovers were trying to photograph the comet, while the Reconnaisance Orbiter and other satellites attempted to resolve the comet's shape, study its gas and dust shroud and the material trailing away, and examine any interactions with the Martian atmosphere.

The comet was first observed in January 2013 at the Siding Spring Observatory in New South Wales, Australia. It was possibly knocked from the remote Oort Cloud towards the inner solar system by a passing star. It is believed that the comet is very little altered from the time of its formation more than 4.5 billion years go, and may have been travelling since the dawn of man.

Comment: The initial photographs from Mars are historic but unspectacular. Hopefully detailed analysis of all the data obtained from the comet fly-past will reveal valuable scientific insight into this primordial comet. It is truly wonderful that all the instrumentation that has been placed on and around Mars has formed such a useful science laboratory outpost in place to study this unique event.

Thursday, 2 October 2014


A new study reported in Nature magazine identifies a huge rectangular buried feature on the Moon:

The 2,500 km wide structure is believed to be the remains of old rift valleys that late became filled with lava. Centred on the Procellarum region, the feature is revealed in gravity maps  acquired by Nasa's grail mission in 2012. However, it is possible to trace the outline of the rectangular region in ordinary photographs.

Professor Jeffery Andrews-Hanna said 'It's really amazing how big this feature is. It covers about 17% of the surface of the Moon.' He notes that the Procellarum  region contains a lot of naturally occurring radioactive elements, including uranium, thorium and potassium. On the early Moon these would have heated the crust which, when cooled, would have contracted. This shrinking would have ripped the surface, opening deep valleys.

This study is further proof of the value of the Grail mission, led from MIT. The two Grail satellites mapped changes in the pull of the Moon's gravity.

Comment: Recent exploration of the solar system has shifted away from the Moon, to Mars and beyond. It's good news to find scientific discoveries continuing on our closest neighbour in space.

Wednesday, 1 October 2014


An esoteric bet between two renowned physicists has taken another twist:

The bet between Professors Stephen Hawking and Neil Turok was about the inflation theory of the early universe and the existence of gravitational waves.

In March this year the US BICEP team said it had found a pattern on the sky left by the rapid expansion of space fractions of a second after the Big Bang at the beginning of the universe. Professor Hawking said the finding was another confirmation of inflation. He also clamed he'd won a bet with Professor Turk whose Cyclic Universe Theory predicts no gravitational waves from the early universe.

However, new data has found that the group may have underestimated the influence on the data of dust in our own galaxy. Professor Turok said 'The BICEP experiment claimed that 20% of the fluctuations from the Big Bang were due these gravitational waves, the sign of inflation. However, Planck satellite data now confirms that the limit is less than 10%.

On this evidence, Professor Turok has suggested to Professor Hawking that they should refine their bet.

Comment: Theoretical physics is an exciting field of research.

Tuesday, 30 September 2014


India has successfully placed a satellite named Mangalyaan into orbit around Mars:

Only the US, Europe and Russia have previously sent missions to Mars.

Mangalyaan is remarkable for its relatively low cost. The total cost of the Indian mission is estimated at $74m, compared with the current Maven mission at $671m. 

A key aim of the mission is to try to detect methane in the Martian atmosphere.

Comment: There may be some duplication of scientific results compared to other missions, but hopefully Mangalyaan will add to our knowledge of Mars.

The latest Nasa Mrs satellite  Maven has arrived successfully in orbit around Mars, after a journey from earth lasting ten months:

Maven's primary purpose is to study Mar's high atmosphere to try to understand the processes that have caused the loss of most of its atmosphere. The Martian atmosphere is composed mostly of carbon dioxide, with a surface pressure only 0.6% of the Earth's surface pressure. Unlike earth, Mars lacks a global magnetic field able to deflect energetic particles from the Sun. The intention is to measure the rates at which different molecules in the atmosphere are being lost today, distinguishing between the various processes responsible.

Comment: Another exciting step forward in the scientific exploration of Mars.

The European Space Agency (Esa) has confirmed the date for the landing attempt on Comet 67P as Wednesday 12 November, which is one day later than discussed in provisional planning.

The extra time will give controllers more latitude to get Rosetta into the best position to send the 100kg lander Philae to the comet surface.

Philae will free-fall towards the comet, making contact with the chosen landing site J at 15.35 GMT. Radio signal will take 28 minutes and 20 seconds to reach Esa's ground station on Earth, so confirmation of the landing will come shortly after 16.00 MT.

Philae has no thrusters to control or alter its descent trajectory, so it will land where it will land. Philae could sink into a soft powder or impact ice as hard as rock, or even bounce back into space.

Comment:  This is an extraordinarily risky mission, but if successful should provide spectacular results.

Monday, 29 September 2014


A recent report into academy schools in England carried out for the Education Select Committee found that regulation was 'too weak' and 'questionable practices' were being signed off.

The research was carried out by the University of London's Institute of Education. Cases of deliberate fraud were rare, but problems were still occurring, including potential conflicts of interest

An academy headteacher had spent £50,000 on a one-day training course run by a friend.

The chair of a multi-academy trust, who was also a lawyer specialising in education, used his company to provide all legal services for the trust.

The chair of governors in one academy school told staff they would be dismissed if they discussed with students or used textbooks referencing abortion or contraception.

The Education Secretary Nicky Morgan will be questioned about the report findings next month.

Comment: These findings are deeply worrying. This is a section of the public education sector apparently showing a culture of mismanagement and lack of accountability at a local level.

Tuesday, 16 September 2014


Lammas Field, Limbury Mead, Luton yesterday, looking down to the River Lea and riverside walk, with a glimpse of Blows Downs in the far distance.

There is now a new community orchard here, planted by local Luton schoolchildren. Less than two miles from Luton town centre.


The autumn conference of the Green Party of England and Wales, meeting at Aston University, Birmingham, on 5 - 8 September, agreed an updated energy policy reaffirming opposition to nuclear power.

Green Party energy policy remains committed to renewable energy sources and energy conservation measures.

Comment: The updated energy policy was agreed by a large majority of delegates at conference.

Monday, 15 September 2014


The Rosetta mission team has selected a landing site and a back-up for the challenging attempt to land the Philae robot on the surface of Comet 67P scheduled for 11 November. 

They have chosen what is believed to be a relatively smooth region, identified as J, on the smaller of the comet's two lobes. This site also has good lighting conditions, which means some periods of darkness to cool Philae's systems.

The back-up location is on the larger lobe, identified as C, with a range of interesting surface features including cliffs and hills, but also many smooth plains.

The above photo of Comet 67P shows the region of landing site J.

More detailed mapping of J and C is taking place. A final decision will be made in mid-October.

Comment: The proposed landing attempt with Philae seems an extremely risky and spectacular operation. If the landing is successful it could lead to great advances in our understanding of cometary science.

A more sensitive Ligo (Laser interferometer gravitational-wave observatory) is progressing rapidly and will start scanning the sky in summer 2015 searching for gravitational waves.

The first generation of Ligo ran between 2001 and 2010 and saw nothing. Professor AlbertoVecchio from the School of Physics and Astronomy of the University of Birmingham said: 'Advanced Ligo will be sensitive to a factor of 1,000 in the volume that we were observing with initial Ligo, and that is the sphere of volume where we expect to see a few gravitational waves'.

Ligo operates by beaming a high power laser beam into a splitter that divides the beam into two parts. Each part is then directed towards two 4 km tunnels perpendicular to each other. A mirror at the end of the tunnels reflects the rays back into a detector where they are recombined. Since both tunnels are equally long, when the two halves meet in the detector the original signal shows no pattern. But if a gravitational wave was passing through the Earth, a pattern would be observed.

Potential sources of gravitational waves are supernovae, fast spinning neutron stars, or the collision of black holes and neutron stars orbiting close to each other.

Comment: Observation of gravitational waves would be an important test for the verification of the theory of gravity in Einstein's general theory of relativity.

Thursday, 11 September 2014


New figures from the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) show the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere increased last year at the fastest rate for nearly 30 years.

The WMO bulletin shows the globally averaged amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere reached 396 parts per million (ppm) in 2013, an increase of almost 3 ppm over the previous year.

The bulletin records how much of the warming gases remain in the atmosphere after the complex interactions that take place between the air, the land and the oceans. About half of all emissions are taken up by the seas, trees and living things.

Michel Jarraud, secretary general of the WMO, said: 'We must reverse this trend by cutting emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases across the board. We are running out of time.'

Commenting on findings that global average temperatures have not risen in concert with the sustained growth in CO2, WMO research chief Oksana Tarasova explained 'The climate system is not linear, it is not straightforward. It is not necessarily reflected in the temperature of the atmosphere, but if you look at the temperature profile in the ocean, the heat is going in the oceans.'

Comment: This WMO report adds further to the evidence of increasing greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere, and the urgent need for global political action to confront this problem.

Monday, 1 September 2014


A new research report from Cambridge and Aberdeen universities estimates greenhouse gases from food production will rise by 80% if meat and dairy consumption continues to rise at its current rate:

Lead researcher Bojana Bajzelj from the University of Cambridge said: 'The average efficiency of livestock converting plant feed to meat is less than 3%, and as we eat more meat, more arable cultivation is turned over to producing feedstock for animals that provide meat for humans. The losses at each stage are large, and as humans globally eat more and more meat, conversion from plants to food becomes less and less efficient, driving agricultural expansion and releasing more greenhouse gases. Agricultural practices are not necessarily at fault here - but our choice of food is.'

The study urges eating two portions of red meat and seven of poultry per week. But the world's cities are seeing a boom in burger restaurants, and there is concern about the obesity pandemic.

Comment:  The science is now well-established, but what action should be taken is highly controversial. What may be counter-productive is aggressive insistence that people should immediately adopt a vegetarian or even a vegan lifestyle, and evidence of  contradictory messages about healthy eating. Perhaps it's best approached by education and gentle persuasion to bring about gradual change - yet the environmental risks are urgent.

Sunday, 31 August 2014


NUCLEAR  IRAN: The Birth of an Atomic State

 by DAVID PATRIKARAKOS, I.B.Tauris, 340pp, £25 ISBN: 978-1780761251

 This review by Malcolm Bailey was first published in Green World GW80 Spring 2013.

 David Patrikarakos’ book is a highly readable, accessible and well-researched account of the nuclear history of Iran, from the early days of the Shah, through the Islamic Republic, to the present major international confrontation. This is a serious analysis of the intertwined relationship of the scientific, technological and geopolitical aspects of nuclear power and nuclear weapons developments in Iran.
   The Shah’s obsession with nuclear power for Iran derived from his belief that it was an essential route to a modern state, a totem of modernity.  It meant personal and national prestige. He courted the West to develop Iran’s nuclear infrastructure.  Nuclear power would leave more of Iran’s oil to sell abroad, bring in revenue, and serve a rapidly growing population.
    In 1979 the Islamic Republic swiftly reversed the Shah’s interest in nuclear power. The new regime saw it as part of ‘Westoxification’, a conspiracy to make Iran dependent technologically on the West. Nuclear Iran traces the events of the war with Iraq, and the Islamic Republic’s eventual return to a nuclear programme as a positive for Iran’s ‘nuclear nationalism’.
   Patrikarakos traces the unenviable monitoring role of the International Atomic Energy Agency, as suspicions grew that the Islamic Republic was interested as much in achieving a nuclear weapon as in nuclear power. His conclusion is that Iran probably desires the capability for a nuclear weapon, but not the bomb itself.   
   I note that discussion of green issues, climate change and peak oil gets lost in the nuclear realpolitik, as does Chernobyl and Fukushima. There is enough nuclear science for non-technical readers, possibly insufficient history for historians. Nuclear Iran is an excellent read, and I strongly recommend this book.

Saturday, 30 August 2014


The United States has now imposed further sanctions on at least 25 companies and individuals suspected of aiding Iran's nuclear programme, evading earlier sanctions, or supporting terrorism.

The US suspects Iran of seeking atomic weapons. Iran insists it is enriching uranium for use in nuclear power stations and for medical purposes.

David Cohen, the US Under-Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, said 'These new sanctions reflect our continuing determination to take action against anyone, anywhere, who violates our sanction'.

The next round of talks on this issue is expected in mid-September. The deadline set for reaching permanent agreement resolving the nuclear dispute is 24 November this year.

Comment: This dispute has been running for many years. It is rich in hypocrisy.  The development of nuclear power worldwide is supported by the US, despite the close links with nuclear weapons production, unless it happens to be a country out of favour with the US. Further, the US supports non-proliferation of nuclear weapons, but has not reduced its own enormous nuclear arsenal in line with non-proliferation treaty obligations.

Friday, 29 August 2014


Early this year students at University College London's teaching observatory at Mill Hill detected a rare supernova explosion in the nearby M82 galaxy. These events occur in a galaxy typically only once every two hundred years.

The star was a dead star - a white dwarf - and the event is known as a Type 1a supernova.

Single white dwarfs just cool off slowly over time. But if the white dwarf star is able to acquire additional mass, either from a companion star or another white dwarf, its mass can exceed a threshold (called the  Chandrasekhar limit)  and a supernova explosion is initiated.

The theoretical mechanism is that the extra mass causes a nuclear fusion between carbon and oxygen atoms to give radioactive nickel, which decays via cobalt into iron. This decay chain generates gamma rays that give rise to the bright emission from the supernova.

Dr Eugene Churazov and colleagues studied these gamma rays between 50 and 100 days after the explosion. They detected the signature of the cobalt decay in the gamma ray profile and the amount of gamma emission matched the theoretical model for a white dwarf supernova.

However their results were not yet able to exclude the possibility that this event was caused by a merger of two white dwarfs, rather than by a white dwarf close to the Chandrasekhar limit acquiring additional mass from a companion star.

Comment: A remarkable investigation of a chance rare stellar event which was observed this year.

Thursday, 28 August 2014


Curiosity rover has been continuing its journey towards Mount Sharp. It encountered wheel slip in the terrain called Hidden Valley, en route to the Pahrump Hills. A decision was then taken to carry out more drilling until a new path was set. However, the initial test mini-drill into a flat slab of rock called Bonanza King was halted due to what is believed to be movement of the rock during drilling:

To examine what has happened, Curiosity is collecting a large sequence of photographs for assessment. If the outcome is positive, Curiosity will resume drilling a full 6 cm deep hole in Bonanza King.

Deputy Project Scientist Dr Joy Crisp explained: 'The main purpose of drilling this rock is to find out the mineralogy of the rock unit exposed in Hidden Valley. It looks different from the rocks we've drilled so far, so we are hoping that the mineralogy will also be different, potentially telling us new information about past environmental conditions on Mars.'

Comment: It's fascinating how the Curiosity project team are able to turn unexpected developments into positive new studies on Mars. This is  truly wonderful scientific mission of exploration on the Red Planet.

Tuesday, 26 August 2014


ESA project managers have now selected a longlist of  five potential landing sites on Comet 67P:

If the comet is considered to look like a rubber duck, three of the sites are on the head, two are on the body. The neck region has been ruled out

The decision was made principally on operational grounds, where engineers believe the Philae landing probe can touch down on the comet surface with least risk. Other considerations included the need for a location that experiences a day/night cycle, and a place free from boulders and fissures.

Philae is described as 'washing machine-sized'. Comet 67P has a maximum dimension of about 4.5 km.

Landing on a comet has never been attempted before.

A final decision on the landing site is expected by mid-October. The landing attempt is scheduled for 11 November 2014. Due to the distance from Earth, real-time radio control will be impossible. The landing commands will be uploaded several days in advance.

Comment: This is a dramatic and risky mission, but if successful promises to yield valuable scientific understanding about the nature of the comet. The impossibility of real-time control due to the distance involved and the speed of the radio signals is an interesting feature of operating at large distances from Earth. It is significant when, as in this case, important decisions may be required on a timescale short compared to the travel time of the signals.

Friday, 15 August 2014


The French company EDF has temporarily shut down two of its nuclear power station in England, due to an unexpected crack in a boiler at Heysham 1 nuclear reactor, according to the Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR).

Both nuclear reactors at Heysham have been shut down, also the two reactors at Hartlepool nuclear power station.

The company stated that the shut downs would last around eight weeks to allow further inspections. 

The National Grid has said that the shut downs would have no effect on the UK's supply of electricity.

The ONR is seeking positive confirmation of the condition of the boilers, and said that there has been no release of radioactive material and no persons have been injured.

Comment:  'Unexpected cracks' is worrying. We are assured that nuclear risks are all understood and accounted for at nuclear power stations - 'unexpected' is not part of the lexicon. It was the 'unexpected' that did it for Fukushima, and Chernobyl.

Wednesday, 13 August 2014


The European Space Agency spacecraft Rosetta arrived at Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko on 6 August on schedule more than 10 years after launch from Earth.

Rosetta is now 550 million kilometres from earth. Signals take 22 minutes between Earth and Rosetta.

Rosetta is now travelling alongside the comet, some 100 kilometres distant, and will continue to follow the comet for the next 15 months. In November a harpoon is planned to anchor a lander Philae to the surface of Comet 67P.

Rosetta carries a thermal imaging spectrometer VIRTIS which has recorded temperatures on the comet around -70 degrees C, about 20 degrees warmer than expected.

Comment: This is a remarkable mission carrying out an important and unique detailed scientific study of a comet. If Philae lands successfully it will be a wonderful technical achievement with potentially significant results for our understanding of comets. Interestingly, because of the small size and low gravity of 67P, Rosetta is not actually in orbit, but is maintained in a triangular path around the comet by firing thrusters.  

Friday, 1 August 2014


The next Martian rover will be launched by Nasa in the summer of 2020, to land on Mars in 2021.
It will carry a device able to convert carbon dioxide taken from the Martian atmosphere into oxygen.

The seven scientific projects on board will include an experimental weather station, ground-penetrating radar for analysing the planet's geology, two arm-mounted gadgets for analysing the chemistry and structure of soil and rocks, and two cameras.

The oxygen produced by a new 'MOXIE' device could be used to support human life in a future manned mission to Mars, or make rocket fuel for return missions.

The rover design will be closely modelled on Curiosity rover, which landed on Mars in August 2012.

Space will be available to store packaged rock samples drilled from the planet's surface, which could be shipped back to Earth by future return flights.

Comment:  An exciting development of the Curiosity work currently being carried out on the surface of Mars. But a long six year wait before launch.

Thursday, 31 July 2014


I have enjoyed Blackberrying for as long as I can remember, and still do. Last year the wild blackberry harvest was magnificent. This year looks at least as good, and starting earlier.

There is something deeply satisfying about picking blackberries. I know a quiet little lane aside a brook with thick prolific brambles both sides. The sheer numbers, more than enough for everyone and the birds and other wild creatures. You soon develop an efficient picking routine despite the thorns and nettles. Those berries just beyond easy reach always seem most desirable. As my jar fills, thoughts of blackberry jam, crumbles and fresh fruit linger.

This is a free resource. No notices about DO NOT PICK. Compare the expensive blackberries on the supermarket shelf, flown in from South America.

As I was picking yesterday, I got to thinking this is a sort of practical expression of the Commons. The common treasury for all. It's not only blackberries in my little lane; here there are sweet apples, plums and cob nuts soon ripening.

Nasa is seeking help from universities and companies about better ways to relay data back to Earth. The aim is to close a potential communications gap set to occur in 2020.

Currently Nasa relies on two craft orbiting Mars, Odyssey and the Reconnaissance Orbiter, to pass data back to Earth beamed to them from the Curiosity rover on the Martian surface.

Data relay will be taken over by two newer spacecraft:  Nasa's Maven satellite (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution in September 2014, and Europe's ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter in 2016.

Nasa has no plans to launch orbiters after Maven. However, there are plans to land more rovers on Mars, which will potentially create a problem retrieving data gathered by the rovers. 

Nasa's John Grunsfeld says 'We are looking to broaden participation in the exploration of Mars to include new models for government and commercial partnerships.'

This could include laser data transfer to boost data transfer rates.

Comment:  Exploration of Mars using surface rovers looks set to expand. Will this develop into a commercial 'goldrush' mentality, allowing a few rich countries to exploit the red planet?

Wednesday, 30 July 2014


For the first time in six years the government has opening bidding for new fracking licences. 

Half the UK is now open to exploration for shale gas.

New restrictions apply to National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural, and companies granted a licence for test drilling will also need planning permission and environmental permits. The Environment Secretary will also have more power to intervene where their are disputes over drilling. 

The first gas from fracking is likely to be extracted early in 2015.

Comment: There have been strong local protests where test drilling has already been carried out. There are several sweeteners on offer to try to persuade local communities to accept the risks around fracking: tax breaks, payments of £100,000 per site plus a 1% share of revenue. The government deny that the new restrictions on fracking are designed to head off protest in Tory seats in the south of England.

Tuesday, 29 July 2014


New images of comet 67P/C-G from the Rosetta probe appear to show the nucleus of the comet is two objects - a smaller 'head' connected by  a 'neck' to a larger 'body'.

On 20 July Rosetta was about 5,500 km from the comet. The ESA probe is due to move into orbit on 6 August, when it will be 70 km from the surface of comet 67P,  a 4.5 km wide ball of ice.
Then surface mapping of the comet will help select a touchdown zone for a small landing robot called Philae in November.

Dr Holger Sierks from the Max-Planck-Institute in Germany said 'The only thing we know for sure at this point is that this neck region appears brighter compared to the head and the body of the nucleus.' The team say this could be due to a different surface composition or topography in the neck region.

Rosetta will be the first space mission to rendezvous with a comet, follow it and attempt to send a lander to its surface.

Comment: Fascinating detail of 67P from Rosetta which should increase our understanding of the nature of comets.

Tuesday, 3 June 2014


An exoplanet named Kepler-10c has been discovered which has a high mass but a diameter only about twice that of Earth.

An exoplanet that massive would have been expected to have a gaseous composition, attracting hydrogen gas, similar to Jupiter or Neptune in the solar system.

The diameter of Kepler-10c was determined using a light-dip technique as the exoplanet transited its host star, while its mass was measured by examining the gravitational attraction between exoplanet and star.

These measurement indicate that the new exoplanet has a density of 7.5 grams per cubic centimetre, compared with Earth's 5.5 gram per cubic centimetre, according to Professor Dimitar Sasselov of the Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics. Professor Sasselov said 'Finding Kepler-10c tells us that rocky planets could form much earlier than we thought. And if you can make rocks, you can make life.'

The host star is about 560 light years away from Earth. and is about 11 billion years old, which is early in the evolution of the universe when generations of exploding stars have not had long to make the heavy elements needed to construct rock planets.

Comment:  The US space agency's Kepler telescope continues to make further discoveries of different types of exoplanets, increasing our understanding of planetary formation.

Monday, 2 June 2014


A survey by the Royal College of Psychiatrists suggests that pressure on mental health beds is so severe that some patients are having to be 'sectioned' to secure necessary care.

The survey also suggests that critically unwell patients are being sent home because no bed can be found for them.

The survey found that 18% of the junior doctors working in psychiatry in the study said that their decision to detain a patient under the Mental Health Act (referred to as 'sectioning') had been influenced by the fact that doing so might make the provision of a bed more likely. 37% said a colleague's decision had been similarly influenced.

One-in-four said a bed manager had told them that unless their patient had been sectioned they would not get a bed. 

Almost 30% have sent a critically-ill patient home because no bed could be found. A third had seen a patient admitted to a ward without a bed.  22% had been forced to send a child more than 200 miles from their families for treatment.

Doctors also reported sending adult patients long distances to access care and admitting people into a bed belonging to another patient who had been sent home for a period of trial leave.

Dr Howard Ryland of the Royal College of Psychiatrists described the survey findings as 'very alarming'. 'People are beginning to recognise that there is a real crisis in mental health.'

The Care Minister Norman Lamb said 'It is not acceptable to detain someone under the Mental Health Act purely because they need an inpatient bed.'

Investigations in recent months have highlighted that more than 1,700 mental health beds have been cut, and that patients are travelling huge distances to access care.

Comment: The findings of this survey, and the information about reductions in mental health beds, are extremely disturbing, affecting as it often does some of the most vulnerable people, at a time of crisis in their lives. The use of the term 'sectioning'  - which in effect means being arrested - has become a sort of euphemism and a derogatory term of abuse. The use of this term should be stopped. It is an example of discrimination against mental health patients. The findings of this survey demonstrate clear evidence that the procedure is open to abuse, and is now being routinely abused.  Action is needed urgently by the government to end this crisis in health care in the NHS. It is unacceptable that mental health patients are 'cared for' in this way. 

Saturday, 31 May 2014


The new head of the NHS in England, Simon Stevens, has said there needs to be new models of care built around smaller local hospitals. In recent years the health service has emphasised the benefits of centralised services.

Centralised specialist services have brought significant benefits in recent years, in areas such as stroke care and major trauma.

But this policy has raised questions about the future of many smaller district general hospitals.

Mr Stevens said that smaller hospitals should play an important part in providing care, especially for the growing number of older patients who could be treated closer to home.

Mr Stevens took up his post in the NHS in England after 11 years working for private health care firms in Europe, the US and South America.

Comment: This is a welcome policy change. There are important roles for both the smaller local hospitals, and the centralised specialist centres. Both are needed. The move away from local services has gone too far, with some evidence the policy was fuelled increasingly by funding cuts in the NHS. Services for the elderly, and for mental health, in particular, should be available locally. Budget cuts leading to fewer NHS beds have in some areas meant patients moving to hospitals at distance from their homes, with the NHS having to buy provision in the private sector. 

Thursday, 22 May 2014


The European Space Agency's (Esa) Rosetta spacecraft has lit its thrusters for a near-eight-hour burn to put it on just the right path to meet up with Comet 67P/C-G in August.

There will be eight further manoeuvres, but yesterday's was the big one.

Rosetta is currently 500 million km from Earth. Comet 67P/C-G is travelling round the sun on a big loop that takes it out beyond the orbit of Jupiter and then back in to just inside the orbit of Mars.

Comment:  Plenty of chances for things to go wrong before the August rendezvous, but hopefully this exciting mission will be successful.

Tuesday, 20 May 2014


A new European Space Agency (Esa) Cryosat satellite study shows that Antarctica is now losing about 160 billion tonnes of ice a year to the ocean, twice as much as in the last survey. 

Cryosat was launched by Esa in 2010. It has two antennas slightly offset from each other, enabling the detection of not just the height of the ice sheet but the shape of its slopes and ridges. Cryosat is thus more sensitive to details at the steep edges of the ice sheet, where the thinning is most pronounced. 

The ice loss is sufficient to increase global sea levels by around 0.43 mm per year. By comparison, total loss of the Antarctic ice could cause a 58 metre sea level rise.

The new study divides Antarctica into three regions;  West Antarctica, East Antarctica and the Antarctic Peninsula.  All three regions are losing ice, but the Western ice sheet predominates. In particular, the six huge glaciers in the Amundsen Sea Embayment are all being eroded, with the Smith Glacier surface lowering by 9 metres per year.

Professor Andy Shepherd of Leeds University said 'The peninsula is extremely rugged and previous satellite altimeters have always struggled to see its narrow glaciers. With Cryosat, we get remarkable coverage - better than anything that's been achieved before'

Comment:  Two other recent studies have focused on the melting of the Amundsen ice sheet. These increasingly accurate measurements of the rate of ice loss in Antarctica are important in understanding the future impact of global climate change.

Thursday, 15 May 2014


A NASA study team has analysed 40 years of observations of six big ice streams draining into the Amundsen Bay and concluded that the melting is irreversible.

The glaciers are the Pine Island, Thwaites, Smith, Haynes, Pope and Kohler. 

Professor Eric Rignot said 'We present observational evidence that a large section of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet has gone into a state of irreversible retreat; it has passed the point of no return. This retreat will have major consequences for sea level rises worldwide. It will raise sea levels by 4 ft, but its retreat will also influence  adjacent sectors of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet which could triple this contribution to sea level.'

Another paper, from a team led by Dr Ian Joughlin, a glaciologist at the University of Washington's Applied Physics Laboratory, includes computer modelling and also indicates that a collapse of the Thwaites Glacier is inevitable, over a timescale of the next 200 to 500 years. 

Professor Andy Shephard from the University of Leeds commented that the EU's newly launched Sentinel-1a radar satellite would have a unique capability to assess the glaciers' grounding lines. The grounding line is the junction of a glacier with the ocean.  'As soon as the satellite reaches its nominal orbit, we will turn its eye on Thwaites Glacier to see whether it has indeed changed as predicted.'

Comment: The scientific evidence continues to point to highly significant melting of these glaciers. Further research on the timescales will be important.

Wednesday, 14 May 2014


Talks have resumed between Iran and the US, UK, France, China, Russia and Germany seeking agreement on a comprehensive solution to the Iranian nuclear issue.

The aim is to build on an interim deal at earlier negotiations that saw uranium enrichment curtailed by Iran in return for sanctions relief.

Iran is being asked to scale back its sensitive nuclear activities permanently to ensure that it cannot assemble a nuclear weapon. Iran says its nuclear work is peaceful, and wants the economic sanctions to end.

The three key issues are:

Iran's uranium enrichment capacity
The heavy-water reactor at Arak
The possible military dimensions of Iran's nuclear programme

President Hassan Rouhani has said that Iran will not surrender its right to nuclear development.

Comment:  Iran has always insisted that it does not intend to produce a nuclear weapon. It has been pointed out that the nuclear states have failed to implement their commitment under the nuclear proliferation agreement to reduce their existing nuclear weapons stockpiles.

Monday, 12 May 2014


Observations by the new European Union's Sentinel-1a radar spacecraft reveal a marked increase in the flow speed of an ice cap glacier in Norway.

This is the glacier at Cap Mohn on the Austfonna ice cap. Scientists had suspected this ice cap was losing substantially more ice through its main drainage glacier.

The Sentinel-1a results confirm this view. Sentinel-1a was launched only last month.

Professor Andy Shepherd from Leeds University said 'We've observed  Austfonna with various satellite radar datasets over the past 20 years, and it hasn't done very much. But we've now looked at it again with the new Sentinel-1 spacecraft, and it's clear it has speeded up quite considerably in the last two or three years.. It is now flowing at least 10 times faster than previously measured.'

Comment: These early findings from Sentinel-1a provide further scientific evidence of an increased rate of glacier melting in Norway. 

Saturday, 10 May 2014


The Public Accounts Committee, chaired by Margaret Hodge, has criticised the financial management of Free Schools. Problems identified by whistleblowers should have been found through official audit and review processes.

There are currently 174 Free Schools in England, with another116 approved to open from this September.

The committee said that high-profile failures at three Free Schools show that not enough is being done to ensure that public money is being used properly. To protect whistleblowers, it urges a ban on the use of confidentiality clauses in Free School staff contracts.

The Government said that many of the committee's concerns were 'misplaced'.

Comment:    A serious problem with the Free School programme is a mis-match between the location of Free Schools and the areas where there is the greatest need for resources and additional school places.  The overall cost of  the 'free' schools is also a serious concern.

Friday, 9 May 2014


Greater East Midlands (GEM) Commissioning Support Unit has been criticised for the standard of its NHS continuing healthcare services for patients with complex needs.

Leicester West Labour MP Liz Kendall, a shadow health minister, said a number of people had been 'badly let down' and 'no-one is taking responsibility.'

 She said that a terminally ill 21-year-old man was discharged from hospital after a 10-week stay without the right support, and in another case a company commissioned by GEM to provide night care for an elderly man with Alzheimer's failed to change the man's incontinence pads and he was left wet overnight.

GEM told Ms Kendall that it had only one part-time person monitoring the quality of all its home care providers. A spokeswoman for GEM said vacancies in its monitoring department had since been filled.

Comment: Yet another case of serious problems with a Commissioning Support Unit, apparently with no-one taking responsibility ie a failure of public accountability.

Thursday, 8 May 2014


The Rosetta spacecraft carried out a manoeuvre yesterday moving towards an orbit rendezvous with Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko on 6 August.

The European Space Agency (ESA) launched Rosetta in 2004. Rosetta carries a lander called Philae due to touch down on the comet in mid-November.

Philae will report back on changes that occur on the surface o 67P as gas and dust lift away from the comet when the icy surface is heated as it moves closer to the Sun.

Comment:  As with many of the science probes sent to study distant objects in the solar system, patience is the name of the game. The Rosetta mission is already ten years away from launch, and yet to start the crucial part of its scientific research.  

Wednesday, 7 May 2014


Curiosity has drilled a second deeper hole in the rocked named 'Windjana' at the bottom of Mars' Gale Crater, a week after a test bore just a few centimetres away.

Professor John Grotzinger said his team was seeking further information on the role played by water in fixing the sediments that make up many of the rocks on the crater floor. 'We're most interested to find clues as to the aqueous geochemistry which resulted in cementation of the sedimentary rocks', he commented. The evidence indicates that the crater once held a lake, and the many rounded pebbles seen by Curiosity hint at the action of the water streams that may have fed that lake.

One obvious difference with the new sandstone hole in the Windjana rock compared to the previous drillings is the markedly darker colour of the particles.

Comment:  The new pictures show an obvious layered aspect of the rocks around Windjana, which look clearly sedimentary. It is brilliant that we are able to follow this scientific exploration of the Martian surface, as it happens.

Thursday, 1 May 2014


An investigation into the finances of the Education Fellowship Trust, which runs a chain of Academies mostly in Northamptonshire and Wiltshire, questions governors' expenses of £45,000, a £20.000 trip to New York, £600 for customised umbrellas, unadvertised jobs for family members, £915 on printing Christmas cards, expenses of £45,000 by two trustees, very high levels of private car usage, travel and subsistence and accommodation costs, significant breaches of the Companies Act 2006, Charity Commission regulations and the Academies Financial Handbook, and payment of its chairman £90,000 per year, including transactions with companies in which the chairman has a controlling interest.

The investigation into this use of public funds and, and the financial management and governance, was carried out by the Education Funding Agency. which delivers public funding to academies.

The first academies became part of the Education Fellowship Trust in October 2012. From September 2013 the trust had restructured with the chief executive stepping down.

Academies are independent state schools which operate outside of local authority control.

Wednesday, 30 April 2014


In 2010 astronomers observed a supernova, called PS1-10afx, that was shining 30 times brighter than any other supernova - exploding star -  in its class. It was thought that it may be a completely new type of stellar explosion.

However, a team at the University of Tokyo's Kavli Institute suggested that PS1-10afx was a normal type 1a supernova magnified by a lens in the form of a supermassive black hole nearby, in the direct line of sight between Earth and the supernova. Light rays from the supernova were bent by a warping of spacetime around the black hole, creating four separate images of the supernova viewed from Earth, which were observed as a single image due to atmospheric blurring.  

Dr Robert Quimby said 'We had no direct evidence for the lens. Looking at the spectra, we could check to see if there was light coming from two sources at two separate distances, which is what we found.' The Keck telescope in Hawaii observed the host galaxy of PS1-10afx.

The discovery could provide astronomers with a new tool to measure the expansion of the universe, because each image will arrive at a different time and the precise delay depends on how fast the universe is expanding.

Professor Masamune Oguri of the University of Tokyo said 'Our discovery implies there are many more gravitationally lensed supernovae that are barely resolved, like PS1-10afx'.

For the first time since May 2013, the Curiosity rover on the surface of Mars has drilled into a rock. Images show a sharply defined hole surrounded by a pile of fine grey powder.

Curiosity has travelled more than three miles in the past year towards the primary target, the foothills of the huge central mountain in Gale crater. 

If this test drill proves satisfactory, Curiosity will acquire a second drill sample to be tested in the on-board laboratories.

Curiosity landed on Mars in August 2012. Drill samples last year contained evidence of an ancient lake. Conditions would have supported micro-organism if they had been present.

Thursday, 24 April 2014


The NHS Central Eastern Commissioning Support Unit (CSU) which had a turnover of more than £50m in 2013, is set to fold in September.

This CSU sells services to clinical commissioning groups (CCGs) in Essex and Hertfordshire, such as supplies IT, human resources, financial and contract services.

Managing Director David Stout said many CCGs planned to take back some of its services and run them in-house. The support unit has set up a 'transition oversight committee' to transfer services not taken in-house by CCGs to the Central Southern and North and East London CSUs.

Wednesday, 23 April 2014


The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, now being negotiated stealthily between the USA and the European Union, is a fundamental threat to the National Health Service.

It's designed to allow international big business access to the public money that funds the NHS.

It will treat our public services as goods to be traded like any other merchandise. NHS services will be sold off to the big American health corporations.

Worse, the TIP will deter future governments from restoring the NHS. Using a racket called the 'Investor-State Dispute Procedure', the corporations would be allowed to sue the government for massive sums for 'loss of profits'.

Tuesday, 22 April 2014


Sir Michael Wilshaw, Ofsted chief, is taking personal charge of the Ofsted investigation into claims that some Birmingham schools have been taken over by Muslim hardliners.

The Ofsted findings are due to be published in early May.
There are two other investigations under way: by Birmingham City Council, and also by the Department for Education, to be carried out by the former counter-terror chief Peter Clarke, appointed by the Education Secretary Michael Gove.

The Ofsted inspection involves 18 school in the city, while the City Council is investigating 25 schools.

Roger King, chair of governors at Springfield Primary School and a local National Union of Teachers representative in Birmingham, has denied that his school has faced an Ofsted inspection more recently than a visit 'maybe two years ago', and said he had not come across extremism or segregation in the city's schools.

Park View Educational Trust, which runs schools linked to the allegations, also warned that it was 'highly irresponsible' for anyone to suggest that schools will face interventions when neither the Department for Education or Ofsted had completed their reports - and when pupils at the secondary schools were about to take their GCSEs. 

The inquiry has become known as Trojan Horse because this was the name of a plan for an organised takeover of schools in an anonymous letter. The letter is not yet established as authentic or a hoax.

Monday, 21 April 2014


The Kepler telescope has discovered the most Earth-like planet, Kepler 186f, part of a five planet system around a small cool star about 500 light years distant from Earth.

The planet's radius is about 10% larger than Earth. It is the outermost of the five planet system, orbiting its star in around 130 days. Importantly, it may have the potential to hold water since its path is not too close or two far from the star - the 'habitable zone' - where the water doesn't boil, or freeze.

Professor Stephen Kane from San Francisco State University explained: 'There seems to be a transition that occurs at about 1.5 times the Earth's radius, such that if the planet is larger then it starts to develop a very substantial atmosphere very similar to what we see in the gas giants in our own solar system. And so anything less than 1.5 is probably more like a rocky planet that we are familiar with'.

Kepler 186f is the most similar planet to Earth yet discovered, despite its star being very different from our Sun.

Nearly 2,000 of these exoplanets have now been discovered, about half by the Kepler telescope.

Sunday, 20 April 2014


New research suggests that the early Martian atmosphere, 3.6 billion years ago, would have led to cold, dry conditions on the planet: Mars was not a permanently warm wet world.

The technique used was to calculate the early Martian atmospheric pressure from patterns of ancient meteor craters and dry river beds seen today on the Martian surface. If the atmosphere was thick, small meteors would burn up before reaching the surface; but some craters in the Aeolis Dorsa region near Gale Crater on Mars are small, only a few tens of metres across. suggesting quite small meteors survived through the thin atmosphere and impacted the surface.

Lead author Dr Edwin Kite said: ' Conditions were mostly very cold and very dry even on early Mars - similar to the Antarctic Dry Valleys on Earth today. However, there is still plenty of microbial life even in the Antarctic Dry Valleys so our work doesn't rule out an early environmental niche for life on Mars.'

It seems that surface water was not permanently present on early Mars, and that periods when the temperature got above freezing were rare or periodic.

Friday, 18 April 2014


Images captured last year by NASA's Cassini spacecraft of a small icy object within the outermost ring of Saturn may be evidence of the first stages of the formation of a new moon.

The object is small - 750 miles long by 6 miles wide.

The report's lead author, Carl Murray of Queen Mary University of London, said 'We have not seen anything like this before. We may be looking at the act of birth, where this object is just leaving the rings and heading off to be a moon in its own right.'

The theory of the origin of Saturn's moons proposes that initially Saturn had a massive ring formation capable of giving birth to large moons. As the ring material depleted in this way, newly formed moons became smaller. The largest moons formed earlier, and are further away from the planet.

Cassini may have another opportunity to get more detailed images of the new object in late 2016, which could provide further evidence of the formation mechanism of Saturn's moon system.

Tuesday, 15 April 2014


A highly sensitive particle detector, located one mile underground in a cavern at the bottom of a former gold mine in the Black Hills of South Dakota, is an experiment searching for particles of dark matter.

The detector, called LUX, is inside a steel tank containing 70,000 gallons of pure water, free of any naturally occurring radioactivity that could interfere with the experiment. The detector contains 815 lb of liquid xenon. A dark matter particle interacting with the xenon would cause a tiny flash of light.

LUX failed to detect any of the dark matter particles, called weakly interacting massive particles (WIMPs) during a test run last year, but is now being re-run for a longer period of time.

Professor Rick Gaitskell of Brown University, one of the principal scientists leading the LUX search for dark matter, says 'The hypothesis we are working with at the moment is that a WIMP was the relic left-over from the Big Bang, and in fact dominates over the regular material you and I are made of'.

Dark matter may comprise about 85% of all the matter in the universe.

Other experiments are also searching for evidence of dark matter, including the Large Hadron Collider and space telescopes.

Thursday, 10 April 2014


New measurements of the rate of expansion of the early universe indicate a slower expansion rate than expected.

The BOSS measurements were carried out using a 2.5 m telescope in New Mexico. While measurements of more recent expansion agree well with expected values, the early measurements around three billion years after the big bang give a slower rate than predicted.

BOSS team scientists at Portsmouth University say if further measurements with bigger samples confirm these findings, this may be an indication that the dark energy linked to the universe expansion is not a constant value  as assumed, but varies in some way.