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.