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.

Happy Easter.



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!