Wednesday, 21 February 2018

Teslas in space: trivialising the final frontier

Earlier this month Elon Musk's SpaceX achieved great kudos thanks to the maiden flight of the Falcon Heavy rocket and recovery of two of the three first stage boosters. Although it has the fourth highest payload capacity in the history of spaceflight, the test did not include satellites or ballast but the unlikely shape of Musk's own $100,000 Tesla Roadster, complete with dummy astronaut. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the unique payload of this largely successful mission has led to it being labelled everything from a pioneering achievement to a foolish publicity stunt. So what's the truth behind it?

I discussed the near-future development of private spaceflight back in 2012 and if there's one thing that the programmes mentioned therein have in common is that they have all since been delayed. Rocket technology has proved to be more tricky than the current crop of entrepreneurs envisaged, Elon Musk himself giving the Falcon Heavy a fifty-fifty chance of success. As it was, two of the core booster's engines failed to fire before touchdown, leading it to crash into the sea. Musk admitted that due to safety concerns this design will never - as originally intended - be used to launch crews into space. But a successful first flight for such a large vehicle had the potential to bring enormous kudos - translate that to customers - at the expense of his lagging rivals.

It could be argued that with such a high probability of getting egg on his face, Musk was right to choose a joke payload, albeit an expensive one, as opposed to boring ballast or a (presumably heavily-insured) set of commercial satellites. Even so, some critics have argued that there is enough manmade junk floating around the solar system without adding the Tesla, never mind the slight risk of a crash-landing on Mars. The latter might seem of little import, but there's presumably the risk of microbial contamination - it's thought some bacteria could survive atmospheric entry - and as yet we're far from certain whether Martian microbes might exist in places sheltered from the ultraviolet flux.

However, researchers have run computer simulations and if anything, Earth stands a far greater chance of being the Tesla's target, albeit millions of years in the future. Indeed, Venus is the next most likely, with Mars a poor third. That's if the car doesn't fall apart long before then due to the radiation, temperature variations and micrometeoroid impacts: the 70,000km/h or so velocity means that even dust grains can behave like bullets and there's plenty of natural rock fragments whipping around the solar system.

Musk has said that his low-cost, private alternative to state-led missions is intended to spur competitors into developing similarly reusable launch vehicles, bearing in mind that fossil fuel-powered rockets are likely to be the only way into space for some time to come. Talking of Government-controlled space programmes, NASA has long since decided to concentrate on research and development and leave much of the day-to-day operations, such as cargo runs to the International Space Station, to commercial outfits. In other words, Elon Musk is only touting for business much like any other corporation. His customers already include the communications company Arabsat and the United States Air Force, so interest in the new rocket is clearly building.

As to whether Musk should have fired a $100,000 car on a one-way trip (thanks to orbital mechanics, it's not strictly speaking one-way of course but let's face it, he's never going to get it back) it also comes down to a matter of taste, when you consider the environmental and economic crises facing humanity and the planet in general. The reusability factor to the Falcon Heavy rocket design does assuage the ecological aspect, but only slightly; rockets are a pretty primitive form of transport with some hefty pollutant statistics. Unfortunately, they currently have the monopoly on any space travel for the foreseeable future - I wonder if Virgin Galactic passengers could be encouraged to buy carbon credits?

A rather smaller rocket also launched into the headlines last month in the form of the US-New Zealand Rocket Lab's Electron vehicle. Cheekily called 'Still Testing', this second - and first successful - flight of the two-stage Electron paves the way for New Zealand-based launches of small satellites at comparatively low cost. This particular mission launched several commercial satellites plus the controversial 'Humanity Star', a reflective one-metre geodesic sphere that has been likened to both a disco ball and 'glittery space garbage'. Set to decay and burn up after nine months, Rocket Lab's founder Peter Beck intended it to generate a sense of perspective among the wider public but it has instead instigated a lot of negative commentary from astronomers, environmentalists and people who enjoy getting annoyed about almost anything.

Again, all publicity might seem like good publicity, but it goes to show that many people like their space technology serious and on the level, not frivolous or containing airy gestures (or should that be vacuous ones, space being space and all?) Even this individual rocket's name goes against tradition, which usually comes down to either Greco-Roman machismo or dull acronyms such as NASA's new SLS. In addition, to the unaided eye the cosmos appears to be largely pristine and pure, lacking the visual noise that commercialism bombards us with down here on Earth. Therefore the Humanity Star appears a bit tacky and is unlikely to supply the inspiration that Beck intended, a symbol that is somewhat too puny for its lofty purpose.

An older example of an out-and-out publicity stunt at the edge of space is Felix Baumgartner's record-breaking freefall jump back in October 2012. The Red Bull Stratos mission claimed to be a serious technology test (of for example, the reefed parachute design) as well as a medical experiment on the effects of supersonic travel on a human body outside a vehicle but ultimately it appeared to be an opportunity to fulfil, at least approximately, the company slogan 'Red Bull gives you wings'.

It could be argued that the jump aided research into escaping from damaged spacecraft, but even my limited understanding of the physics involved suggests an enormous difference between Baumgartner's slow, helium-led ascent and the velocity of both newly-launched rockets and deorbiting spacecraft. The mission also claimed to be at the 'edge of space' but at thirty-nine kilometres above the Earth, the altitude was far below the nominal one hundred kilometre boundary known as the Kármán line. As so often the case in advertising, why adhere to the facts when hyperbole will help to sell your product instead? Although the jump broke a fifty-two year old free-fall altitude record, it has since been beaten in much quieter fashion by Google's Senior Vice President of Knowledge, no less. In October 2014 Dr. Alan Eustace undertook a slightly higher self-funded jump that was devoid of publicity, suggesting that far from being a technological milestone, these jumps are more akin to climbing Mount Everest: once the pioneer has been successful, the mission becomes relatively routine.

With a cynical eye it would be very easy to claim that these three missions are the result of over-inflated egos and crass commercialism. The practical issue of unnecessary space junk, combined with the uneasy impression that the universe is now available as a billboard for selling stuff, have soured these projects for many. Several space stations have already utilised food tie-ins while in 1999 Coca Cola investigated projecting advertising onto the moon, only to find the lasers required would be too powerful to be allowed (perhaps they should have contacted Dr Evil?)

In 1993 the US Government banned 'obtrusive' advertising in space, but this hasn't stopped companies in other nations from planning such stunts. A Japanese soft drink manufacturer announced in 2014 that it wanted to land a capsule of its powered Pocari Sweat beverage (sounds delightful) on the moon, the launch vehicle being none other than a SpaceX Falcon rocket. With NASA's increasing reliance on private companies, is it only a matter of time before the final frontier becomes a mere extension of the noisy, polluted, consumer goods-obsessed environment we call civilisation? Frankly, we've made a pig's ear of our planet, so how about we don't make profit margins our number one concern in outer space too?

Tuesday, 13 February 2018

Back to nature: why saving other species could save mankind

Humanity has come a long way from reliance on biologically-derived materials such as wood, bone, antler and fur. Yet this doesn't mean that organic materials have been replaced or many respects surpassed by wholly artificial ones. There are of course new carbon-based materials such as 3D graphene and carbyne that may prove to be the 'ultimate' materials when it comes to properties such as strength, but the history of the past century has shown how natural substances can inspire research too.

Perhaps the most obvious example of this is the hook and loop fastener best known by the trademark Velcro, which is essentially a copy of the burr design on Arctium (burdock) plants. Considering that taxonomists disagree wildly on the global totals of current plant, animal and fungi species - many claiming that less than 20% have been scientifically classified - it seems apparent that nature has plenty more surprises up her sleeve.

Spider silk has long been recognised as an incredibly strong material for its weight, with that generated by many species being up to five times the strength of the equivalent amount of steel. The silk produced by the Madagascan Darwin's bark spider (Caerostris darwini) is ten times stronger than Kevlar, suggesting that bullet-proof clothing manufacturers could do well by investigating it. However, a discovery by an engineering team at Portsmouth University in the UK makes even this seem humdrum: the teeth of limpets are potentially so strong - thanks to a mineral called goethite - that artificial versions of them could be used in high-performance situations, even aircraft components.

In addition to their use in construction, natural substances may prove useful in the development of new pharmaceuticals. I've previously discussed animal defence mechanisms such as that of the bombardier beetle and how small, barely noticed critters such as the peripatus deserve far more investigation. Of course the problem has been that size and aesthetics directly correlate with public attention and newsworthiness, meaning that the likes of the giant panda are used as poster species despite offering little in the way of practical advance for science and technology.

I'm not of course suggesting that species should be judged on the merits of their usefulness to humanity, but that we could probably gain a lot of practical usage from much greater study of the less well known flora and fauna still 'out there'. The resilience of tardigrades is becoming fairly well known, but there are no doubt other seemingly insignificant species with even more astonishing properties. Hydra for example are small, tentacled animals that live in fresh water; thanks to being composed mostly of stem cells they appear to have life cycles that just keep going. There also been limited research on the 'immortal' jellyfish Turritopsis dohrnii; this is surprising, given that the advances in gene splicing technology such as CRISPR-Cas9 and TALEN might lead to important medical breakthroughs, not just glow-in-the-dark pets.

In addition, the race to generate new antibiotics to replace those ineffective against 'superbugs' would suggest any short-cuts that can be taken should be taken. I remember watching a 2006 British murder mystery programme in which people were killed during a hunt for rare South American seeds containing anti-malarial properties. This may be pure fiction, but considering that artemisinin-resistant 'supermalaria' is now on the horizon, the script was somewhat prescient.

The idea behind all this is simple: delving into an existing complex chemical compound is far easier than trying to generate a purely synthetic one from scratch. This is why it is important to conserve small and insignificant species, not just the pandas, elephants and rhinos. Who's to say that a breakthrough medicine or construction material isn't already in existence, just hiding around the corner (or rather, in the genome) of some overlooked species of animal, plant or fungi?

With superbug-beating pharmaceuticals and climate mitigation technology a priority, we're shooting ourselves in the foot if we let an increasing number of unconsidered species became extinct. As I discussed last month all sorts of organisms are now in serious trouble from global amphibian populations via North American snakes and bats to the mighty kauri trees of New Zealand. Just saving a few specimens of doomed species in freezers or formalin is unlikely to be enough: shouldn't we endeavour to minimise species loss for many reasons; and if we must have an economic motive, what about their potential benefit to mankind? Not for nothing has nature been deemed 'the master crafts(person) of molecules' and we lose volumes in that library at own expense.