Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Out There...

It was been a bad week for manned space exploration with the explosion of the Antares rocket intended to re-supply the ISS and the tragic crash of the Virgin Glalatic SpaceShip Two.

These have naturally thrown light on the safety aspects of space travel - with many pointing out that the pilot of the VSS Enterprise was the first fatality in spaceflight since 2003, and that the development of supersonic flight was much more risky.  One aspect that is more interesting to me is that these were both aspects of the long hoped for transfer of space exploration from government organisations to private enterprise.  It remains to be seen how the crashes will affect that transfer (there is an argument that private enterprise is more capable of getting over a disaster than government organisation - witness the paralysis that struck NASA following the Shuttle disasters).

Despite these set-backs, it is clear we are in a golden age of space science.  Stunning discoveries that would have been front-page news a few years ago are now normalised (New planet anyone?  Yawn!).

 Photos such as the ones below were the stuff of dreams and sci-fi, but now come in every day.

Dingo Pass, Mars (Photo: NASA)
Rhea and Titan (Photo: NASA)

Hydrocardon seas on Titan (Photo: NASA)
The story of the European Space Agency's rendezvous, stalking and landing on a comet is remarkable.  When was the last time the ESA was ever made headlines?  They deserve them.

On 12 November, the lander Philae will leave the Rosetta spacecraft (which was launched back in 2004) and land on the nucleus of the snappily-named 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko, delivering 25kg of scientific instruments.  That will be a truly momentous occasion.

How we're used to thinking of comets (Photo: ESA)

How we can now think about them now (Photo: ESA)
When Rosetta was launched it wasn't certain whether there would be any nucleus of substance to land on, or whether it would have the consistency of  cigarette ash.  But then again, in the 60s there were similar concerns about landing on the moon.

Getting closer...


  1. Great post. I work in mapping so the incredible advances in remote sensing is fascinating to me. Images from Mars just blow my mind every time.

  2. Having worked in insurance with some peripheral involvement in the satellite sectoir, the real difference is that governments are able to self insure whereas the private sector has to get commercial coverage. An accident like this will hit Virgin's renewal rates in the New Year for sure. Most of the commercial space sector is insured at Lloyd's of London, so you can be sure they will be looking carefully at the technical aspects of Virgin's project.

    1. Thanks for that insight. It goes some way to explaining why Branson was so eager to squash any talk of an explosion or failure of the fuel system.

  3. I heard a longtime NASA scientist on US public radio the other day, who was saying that there is room for all players (for profit and govt agencies) in space exploration, and that accidents were part of the cost of doing business and the business is insanely hubristic. She made the point that the Saturn rocket program had a dismal initial track record and that it was a fairly small interval between failures of the Apollo program and the first manned launch of a Saturn rocket.
    Oh, and speaking of space, here's a book you should sell.


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