Tungsten cloud to clean up space junk

If you are a follower of space flight then you undoubtedly know about the increasing problem of  space junk: the mass debris formed from fifty years of manned and unmanned space flight, satellite launches and everything else we’ve thrown up there without a proper recovery plan.

A new proposal suggests that we might deploy a tungsten dust cloud that would adhere to the junk, increasing its mass and causing it to fall back to Earth – burning up on re-entry.

The article linked to suggests a problem with this – that the tungsten could coalesce into balls adding  more debris to the pile. But I see a more fundamental problem.

How do you stop the tungsten from sticking to the wrong thing?

If we launch tonnes of tungsten dust into orbit, isn’t it just going to stick to everything up there including sensitive functional satellites?

Putting more junk into the skies doesn’t strike me as a rational way of reducing junk in the skies.

The Space Shuttle: $200 Billion Turkey?

As we enter the final days of the Space Shuttle program, new research has shown that the cost per flight was $1.5 billion per flight with a total cost of nearly $200 billion.

While many of the achievements of the space shuttle have been applauded, criticism of the performance and efficacy of the programme came early and proved to be scarily accurate. A year before the first launch, the Washington Monthly forecast many of the Shuttle’s subsequent problems: the overambitious launch schedule and subsequent higher costs per flight, the lack of a practical abort method, and the fragility of the Shuttle’s thermal protection system.


Space Shuttle in hanger
The vision for processing the Shuttle for its next flight was incredibly simple
Space shuttle in hanger surrounded by complex framework
Compare the vision with the actual ground processing environment

The Shuttle technology was largely derived from old technology and didn’t push the boundaries of what might be achieved and yet, despite this, still managed to be both highly unreliable and costly. NASA made a lot of promises for the Shuttle program and when they found it impossible to deliver on these
they changed the rules, played games and hid the truth; while cutting safety procedures and pushing for unrealistic and unsafe launch schedules. Taking part in the investigation into the Challenger investigation, Richard Feynman said NASA was trying to “repeal the laws of nature” through its risky and overly aggressive launch schedules.

Studies of other alternative launch technologies available at the time show that the Shuttle was no cheaper and significantly less reliable than the Saturn technology it replaced. But in throwing away the Saturn programme, NASA also lost the ability to reach the moon and in doing so threw away the possibility of any kind of Mars mission too.

The Shuttles looked the part, for sure. They looked like the kind of space plane that we see in science fiction and promised to deliver that level of access to space. But appearances can be, and were, deceptive. The writing was on the wall from a very early time in the programme’s life, but no-one dared talk about the ceramic-tile coated white elephant that was in the corner of the room.

Once the Shuttle is gone, NASA will rely on commercial companies for access to space. Without the spectre of the Shuttle unfairly competing with them, we can hope that these companies will be able to successfully develop.

[Images courtesy: Wikipedia]

Tevatron’s Final Fling?

News from the Tevatron collider at Fermilab today shows a ‘bump’ in their data that could be the first evidence of a previously undetected fundamental particle that doesn’t fit into the current ideas of the ‘Standard Model’ of sub-atomic particles.

The blue histogram represents something that is not predicted by the Standard Model. Credit: Fermilab

If this discovery is confirmed, the theories at the very basis of particle physics will have to be re-written completely. The Standard Model, as it stands, describes a group of 16 fundamental particles and forces that are believed to be the ‘stuff’ that makes up everything. The new particle would have a mass 150 times that of a proton and would fall outside the realms of what is currently known to be possible.

The sad thing about this is that the Tevatron is currently in its last days – funding has been withdrawn and it will close down in September 2011. It’s hard to see how this can be viewed as anything but incredibly short-sighted, especially in the light of this latest news.

Fundamental scientific research is often seen as a waste of money because the goals are often undefined or ‘blue sky’. The truth is that basic research is an integral part of doing science and when it pays off, it does so in areas that were previously unimaginable and often in a big way.

Why do we find it more attractive to spend trillions on killing each other, than spending a fraction of that on understanding the universe around us?

New (anti) Scientist?

I’ve been a long time reader of New Scientist and generally enjoy it’s coverage (despite the occasional somewhat dubiously sensationalist headlines) but recently I’ve seen a strange and altogether mystifying trend.

Several of the issues recently have had either articles or editorials that seem to take a rather anti-science (or anti-scientist) view. This seems especially prevelent with regards to the recent supposed ‘scandals’ in climate science and the alleged ‘cover up’ of anti-climate change data.

In a recent editorial NS alluded to the popular idea that “greens and environmental scientists are authoritarian tree-huggers who value nature above people”. The gist of the editorial, and one that has been repeated in several other NS pieces is that scientists as a whole, and in particular environmental scientists don’t ‘sell themselves’ well enough to the mass media and are often seem elitist and impenetrable to the average person.

For one thing, the vast majority of environmentalists seem to have the exact opposite view. The reason they are so worried about environmental change is precisely because they value people and their continued existence in to the future so much. If they didn’t care so much they wouldn’t really give a damn what happened to the world.

Secondly, it’s not really part of a scientist’s “job decription” to popularise science and they’re not usually very good at it. Some are and thank goodness for those blessed with those skils. But the people who’s real job is to explain science to the general public are science popularisation publications and shows. Just like New Scientist .

It seems rather hypocritical of a media outlet designed to popularise science to be criticising scientists for not doing their job for them.