Category Archives: Space

The decline of WorldSpace

Last month I went to a conference marking 50 years of the UK in space. Some of the speakers reminded us many of us use space daily without even thinking about it when we watch satellite television or get directions from our GPS.

A snapshot from last month’s conference (Credit: Alex Costa)

I recently took delivery of a new object for the collection that also uses space – a satellite radio made for WorldSpace. The WorldSpace company was founded in 1990 and used geostationary satellites to broadcast to Asia and Africa. At one point they had 170,000 paid up listeners.

This WorldSpace WSSR-11 satellite radio broadcast receiver we recently added to the Museum’s collection (Credit: Charlotte Connelly)

The company also maintained a not-for-profit arm, using 5% of the satellite’s bandwidth to broadcast programs giving advice on HIV and AIDS, agriculture or providing information for women. It was tricky to make these programs localised enough to be really useful. For example, WorldSpace broadcast some Somali language programmes for use in classrooms in one region of one country, but anyone in Africa could tune in.

Satellite radio also faces technical challenges; I spoke to an engineer who explained that the signal is easily interrupted by concrete, glass, trees and even smoke.

“I had a guy in Ethiopia write me every day that his signal was lost at roughly 10am, 1pm, and 4pm daily. We couldn’t figure it out… It turned out the antenna was in a courtyard, and people took their smoke break in front of the antenna – effectively cutting the signal until they finished their break.”

Aerial masts are a common feature of the landscape in Africa now. This picture was taken in Buea, Cameroon in March 2012 (Credit: Charlotte Connelly)

Unfortunately WorldSpace was unsustainable as a business and went into liquidation in 2008. It might be surprising that a business with 170,000 customers would struggle, but communications technology has changed rapidly since the service started. Back then mobile phones were only just getting going in developed countries, and satellite radio seemed to be a really good way forward. Now, however, mobile phones have completely changed telecommunications in Africa and Asia, and satellite technology is expensive and hard to localise.

Space Debris

X3/Prospero thermal surfaces experiment

X3/Prospero thermal surfaces experiment (Doug Millard, 2005)

This box contains a flight spare set of experimental surfaces for the Prospero satellite that was launched in 1971. They were designed to tell scientists more about how different satellite materials and finishes – matt, shiny etc, would behave in the temperature extremes of space.

It has always reminded me of a much larger experiment flown by NASA (LDEF - which stands for Long Duration Exposure Facility) that was covered with all sorts of equivalent surfaces.

LDEF satellite during its six year stay in orbit

LDEF satellite during its six year stay in orbit (NASA)

The LDEF was brought back to Earth in the Shuttle and scientists discovered that its surfaces were covered with impact craters from micro-meteoroids.

Micro-meteoroid impact crater on the LDEF satellite

Micro-meteoroid impact crater on the LDEF satellite (NASA)

That was back in the 1980s but if the mission were to be repeated now it would almost certainly suffer many more collisions from the bits of space debris that we have put up there. There are thousands upon thousands of pieces of rocket and spacecraft circling Earth and it is becoming a big problem for satellite operators.

Computer representation of just some of the debris pieces orbiting Earth

Computer representation of just some of the debris pieces orbiting Earth (NASA)

At a meeting last week Air Commodore Stuart Evans RAF, Head of Joint Doctrine, Air and Space, DCDC, pointed out that ‘all nine sectors of the UK’s critical national infrastructure (communications, emergency services, government and public services, finance, energy, food, health, transport and water) all rely, to a greater or lesser degree, on space.

What to do about the debris problem, then? There is no simple answer at the moment and all the space players can do is ensure as little new debris is created as possible.

Prospero is still in orbit and next October scientists hope to re-contact it for its 40th anniversary. They won’t be able to examine those experimental surfaces but if they could I wonder what state they would be in now!

FM: No Static At All

Our car is still fitted with a cassette player. Albums from long ago (Steely Dan and Beatles are current favourites) provide regular entertainment on journeys and are also enjoyed by the younger members of the family. I suppose we should have moved over to a CD player or something more exotic still, but somehow it seems unnecessary while the cassettes hold out (now 25 years old plus and still working fine!)

8-Track audio tape

8-Track tapes like this one dominated the American in-car market between the 1960s and 1980s but were then killed off by the improved audio quality of the handy cassette. (Science Museum/Science & Society)

I suppose the same can now be said of the car’s FM radio, given government Culture Minister Ed Vaizey’s announcement last week that the digital radio switch-over will happen, but only when a vast majority of listeners have voluntarily adopted digital radio over analogue.

He went on to highlight in-car radio as one of the biggest challenges facing the digital switch-over. This because of the difficulty in receiving digital signals while moving at speed. Once again, why bother to spend money on new technology when the old still works just fine.  He threw down the gauntlet to the car manufacturers to work towards some solutions.

But, although we choose perhaps to forget it, this tendency to delay novelty in favour of that which already works is by no means uncommon.

Smoothwell electric iron, 1935

Smoothwell electric iron, 1935 (Science Museum/Science & Society)

Take another domestic technology – the electric iron: it’s changed little over at least 70 years. Neither, by and large, has the basic form of the bicycle, now well into its second century of pedalling.

Rover 'Safety' Bicycle, 1885
Rover ‘Safety’ Bicycle, 1885 (Science Museum/Science & Society)

And at the other end of the cost spectrum – we still use rockets adapted from 1950s inter continental ballistic missiles to launch satellites and probes into space – they exist, we know lots about them, they do the job – why fix things that aren’t bust?

A Delta 2 Rocket launches the Kepler space observatory in 2009

A Delta 2 Rocket launches the Kepler space observatory in 2009 (NASA/Regina Mitchell-Ryall, Tom Farrar)

So novelty is no guarantee of successful innovation. Maybe Steely Dan had something to say about it in one of the songs we were listening to in the car: ‘FM – No Static at All.’

No Laughing Matter

A Scientific Lecture, 1802

Gilray's 'A Scientific Lecture', 1802, depicts Humphry Davy 'bellowing' laughing gas

What have Humphry Davy, Mike Melvill and my dentist got in common? Answer: They’ve all exploited the chemistry of nitrous oxide, popularly known as ‘laughing gas’.

Davy experimented with euphoria-inducing properties of the gas with his friends Samuel Taylor Coleridge and James Watt. Davy was working at the Pneumatic Institution, set up by Thomas Beddoes to investigate the medical properties of inhaled or ‘factitous airs’. Davy pursued his experiments – part scientific, part recreational – with his normal con brio and was fortunate not to have seriously damaged his and others’ health.

Lucy Baldwin's Analgesic Apparatus, 1955-80

Lucy Baldwin's Analgesic Apparatus, 1955-80, mixed oxygen and nitrous oxide during midwifery (Science Museum/Science & Society)

My dentist, alongside doctors and medics, has long employed nitrous oxide as an analgesic, to relax patients and as a prelude to anaesthesia.

And Mike Melvill? Well, as pilot of SpaceShipOne, the world’s first privately developed spacecraft, he depended on its ability to oxidise rocket fuel for the thrust that carried him spaceward on his pioneering sub-orbital flight of 2004.

Dobson Ozone spectrometer, 1926

Dobson Ozone spectrometer, 1926. Dobson's technique for detecting ozone led to the discovery of the ozone hole over Antartica in 1985. (Science Museum/Science & Society)

So nitrous oxide has a variety of uses but it also has a dark side. Whether produced naturally or by industrial activity it leads to ozone depletion of the upper atmosphere. This lets in more of the Sun’s harmful ultra-violet radiation which the ozone molecules normally absorb. Plus, nitrous oxide acts as a particularly effective greenhouse gas, trapping the heat re-radiated from the Earth’s surface and causing global temperature rises.

No laughing matter indeed.

From Planck to pigeon poo

The European Space Agency has just released the first all-sky map from the Planck satellite. The centre of the map is dominated by purple swirls from the dust around our Galaxy, but Planck’s main business is to look closely at the blobby structures visible in the map’s outer regions. These ’blobs’ show temperature fluctuations in the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB), the remnant radiation from the Big Bang. Irregularities in the CMB became the seeds of today’s galaxies.

Planck's all sky survey (ESA, HFI and LFI consortia)

The fluctuations in the background radiation were first mapped by NASA’s COBE satellite, launched in 1989. An instrument on board also measured the CMB’s spectrum. FIRAS’s moving mirrors created interference patterns in a radiation beam, enabling the precise spectrum to be reconstructed. To the delight of scientists, the results perfectly matched the predictions of Big Bang theory.

This prototype mirror mechanism for the FIRAS instrument is on display in Cosmos & Culture (Science Museum).

The FIRAS prototype is on loan to us from the kind folks at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC.  NASM’s display about the 1964 discovery of the microwave background features one of my favourite objects in any museum, anywhere. Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson initially thought that an annoying background hiss from their radio antenna was caused by pigeon droppings, and used this trap to try and capture the pesky critters. It turned out they’d accidentally found what other scientists had been looking for – the Big Bang’s echo.

Space and Ti(e)me

It’s been an astronomical few days: The Astronomer Royal and President of the Royal Society appeared on the radio to talk about all the big scientific truths that, apparently, ‘we’ll never know’, we celebrated the Summer Solstice, we saw Dr Who at Stonehenge, and - last Thursday - the Director of the Taipei Astronomical Museum came to the Science Museum.

As a parting gift he presented me with a tie depicting the Sun and planets. I had come to work in suit and open collar shirt so I was able to don it immediately much to his delight.

Ties (left to right) Japanese Space Agency, HOTOL project, Hubble Space Telescope, Taipei Astronomical Museum, European Space Agency, Huygens mission

Ties (left to right) Japanese Space Agency, HOTOL project, Hubble Space Telescope, Taipei Astronomical Museum, European Space Agency, Huygens mission (Doug Millard, 2010)

I’ve acquired several space ties over the years and worn all of them but, like other items recently discussed on this blog, there is also good reason for adding them to the Museum’s collections.

Wearing or giving a tie makes a social statement. Many a historian of science argues that we can understand the scientific process better by studying the social world of the scientist, so why shouldn’t this include studies of their tie-wearing world?

The tie in 21st century science tends to be reserved for official occasions with most practising scientists working in open-neck shirts and tops. Wearing a ready-made noose in the laboratory or workshop might not be the best plan…

Scientist sporting tie (and pipe), 1970

Scientist sporting tie (and pipe), 1970 (Science Museum/Science & Society)

I discovered we do already have some neckties in the Collections including those worn by staff members of the Royal Train, one made especially to mark the third Millennium which is adorned with stars, space rockets and a quote from Einstein: (‘I never think of the future. It comes soon enough’).

Millennium Tie with Einstein Quote

Millennium Tie with Einstein Quote (Science Museum/Science & Society)

Maybe we should acquire one of Dr Who’s bow ties too, despite the Astronomer Royal reminding us that the time machine will likely remain forever fiction.

Tempestuous Times

The other day I caught part of a short play on the radio. Prospero, Ariel, Reith and Gill told the story – partly imagined – of sculptor Eric Gill’s contretemps with BBC Director General John Reith in 1932. The occasion was the unveiling of Gill’s Ariel and Prospero on the edifice of Broadcasting House, the BBC’s newly built headquarters.

Prospero and Ariel, Broadcasting House, London.

Prospero and Ariel, Broadcasting House, London (Doug Millard, 2010).

Prospero and Ariel are leading characters in Shakespeare’s The Tempest but their names were also used for two of Britain’s earliest satellites. Ariel 1 was launched in 1962 as the world’s first international spacecraft: the United States provided the satellite structures and launching rocket, Britain designed the on-board experiments. A further five Ariel satellites were launched with Ariel V one of the most successful early X-ray observatories.

Ariel 1 flight spare (now at The Royal Society) in the Science Museum, 1990

Ariel 1 flight spare (now at the Royal Society) in the Science Museum, 1990 (Science Museum/Science & Society)

The Prospero satellite, on the other hand, was an entirely British affair with Britain also providing the launch vehicle – Black Arrow – to boost it into orbit in 1971. Its successor – Miranda (daughter of Prospero) – was launched in 1974 by a US Scout rocket, Black Arrow having been cancelled.

Prospero satellite flight spare on its Black Arrow third stage motor, 2000

Prospero satellite flight spare on its Black Arrow third stage motor, 2000 (Science Museum/Science & Society)

Shakespeare’s original characters endure turbulent times before Prospero renounces sorcery and releases the spirit Ariel from the magical bondage he had cast it into.

Britain’s Ariel 1 satellite did not enjoy quite such a happy outcome as much of its successful scientific capability was lost just three months after launch following the test detonation of a high-altitude nuclear bomb.

Prospero, which will continue to orbit throughout the century – may yet exhibit a flicker of life when scientists attempt to make contact with it next year during its 40th anniversary.

Corrosive Atmosphere

A few days ago I drove past the ‘umbilical’ tower for NASA’s new (but now postponed) Ares rocket programme.

Ares launch tower at Kennedy Space Centre, 2010 (Doug Millard)

Although smaller it is reminiscent of the far taller structures of project Apollo.

Apollo 13's Saturn V and tower, 1969

Apollo 13's Saturn V and tower, 1969 (NASA)

Both Ares and Saturn were ‘mated’ to their respective towers inside the vast Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) and then rolled out on a ‘crawler’ to launch pad 39 A or B at the stately rate of 1 mph. The towers for the soon to be terminated Shuttle programme, on the other hand, were permanent fixtures at each of the two pads with a Shuttle, standing alone on its launch platform, brought ever so carefully the 3 1/2 miles to its designated pad.

Space Shuttle Endeavour 'crawls' to its launch tower at Pad 39A, 2010

Space Shuttle Endeavour 'crawls' to its launch tower at Pad 39A, 2010 (NASA)

Why did NASA revert to bringing Ares vehicle and tower out to the pad for each launch before returning the vacated tower to the VAB? Rust.

The Kennedy Space Centre is situated on the Florida coast and is therefore permanently doused in salty, moist air. The Shuttle launching structures required near constant attention to deal with the corrosion problem. Rusting is an electro-chemical process so, by definition, generates electricity – the first wet cell batteries exploited the principle.

Bichromate cell, 1876

Bichromate cell, 1876 (Science Museum/Science & Society)

And this signals another headache NASA had to deal with when the mighty VAB itself was being constructed. The building is enormous, comprising almost 100,000 tonnes of steel work, and still one of the largest by volume in the world (it had to be to be able to enclose the 363’ tall Saturn V rocket).

Construction of the VAB, 1964

Construction of the VAB, 1964 (NASA)

But its steel pile foundations have to reach down some 50 feet to solid bedrock… through a salty solution – perfect conditions for electro-chemistry to do its rusty worst! NASA realised that if they did not protect the steel piles they would not only have corroded the steel beams and piles but also, in effect, turned the whole VAB into ‘the world’s largest wet cell battery’.

Making Space

Office move time again: sorting, listing, boxing, chucking… all a bit of a chore. But then you come across something a little out of the ordinary – like a Destination Mars Regenerative Life Support Challenge.

Destination Mars Kit (Doug Millard)

Destination Mars Kit (Doug Millard)

This is a school kit put together by the Museum of Science in Boston, Lockheed Martin and NASA back in 1998. It contains all sorts of goodies to teach youngsters about how people might survive on Mars. It even includes a pack of seeds flown on Shuttle mission STS-86 in 2007.

There was a time when such items would not be considered for the Science Museum’s Collections: they would have been classed as ephemera and used only in support activities like talks and workshops. But Destination Mars should be formally accessioned now because  it can tell stories about current and future space exploration, the scientific and technological challenges of going to Mars, space education and, of course, a specific Shuttle mission (that also happened to return a British born astronaut – Michael Foale from the Mir space station in 1997).

Shuttle orbiter Atlantis completes mission STS-86

Shuttle orbiter Atlantis completes mission STS-86, 1997 (Nasa)

We are told we live in a digital world (this blog does support the argument) but I think there will long be a role for physical things like the Destination Mars kit. There’s something about the artefact that appeals, and particularly to the young as they explore and make their way in life. Sometimes it stimulates a life-long interest, maybe points towards a future career.

Finding the kit reminded me of something else in the office that should also go into the collections: Touchdown on the Moon.

Touchdown on the Moon pack

Touchdown on the Moon pack (Doug Millard)

I remember buying one of these packs from North Finchley WHSmiths in 1969. ‘This Spacecraft Commander’s Kit puts you inside Apollo to share every hour of flight and lunar exploration’, it says. It did that and - come to think of it -  help steer me towards that office which is now, just about, cleared and ready for the next occupant.

Going for broker

Many seventeen-year-olds become very familiar with the world of insurance as they pick up the keys for their first hot hatch…

VW Golf, 1975 (David Rooney)

Few of us think about the system that sits behind our insurance policies, but everything in the transport world plays its part in a network of brokers, underwriters, syndicates and financiers – from passenger jets to fleets of reps, container ships to communication satellites.

Intelsat 6 communication satellite, 1989 (NASA / Science & Society)

Transport pioneers have long needed the services of insurers. One item in our archive is a 1907 insurance policy from Lloyd’s, ‘on the life of Charles C. Turner from the time of leaving earth at Crystal Palace in a balloon’.

Turner made it to Sweden and survived, which must have been a relief back in the Lloyd’s underwriting room at the Royal Exchange, London

Royal Exchange, London, c.1905 (NMeM / RPS / Science & Society)

A few days ago, our space curator Doug Millard organised a staff trip to meet a group of space technology insurers at Lloyd’s. Part of the visit included a tour of the remarkable building itself, designed by Richard Rogers and opened in 1986.

Lloyd's building, 2010 (David Rooney)

The building is amazing! The services hang on the outside, leaving the interior a vast volume uninterrupted by service ducts and lift-shafts.

Lloyd's underwriting room, 2010 (David Rooney)

The building’s scale befits the world of global risk-taking. But the work itself – brokers seeking insurance for their clients, meeting underwriters who’ll back the risk – is carried out face-to-face, as in the seventeenth-century coffee shop of Edward Lloyd, where the business started.

Back in 1907, Charles Turner’s broker sat with a Lloyd’s underwriter at a desk just like these in a building not far away…