UKSA no more?

I was talking with someone a few days ago who suspected (thought?) that one victim of the cuts announced a few days ago would be our new UK Space Agency (UKSA). If you’ve read any of my earlier posts on the UKSA you’ll know that I won’t be too unhappy if it turns out to be true. I have no real issue with the UK trying to coordinate its space activities and trying to grow the space industry, but forming a Space Agency with accompanying rhetoric that makes it sound like it will be comparable to NASA is just ridiculous. While writing this post, however, I happened to come across the following article in the Guardian that seems to contradict the suggestion that UKSA is for the chop. A pity in my view.

What I believe is the case is that the new science minister David Willetts was no great fan of the UKSA and has either changed his mind or been pressurised into supporting the UKSA (or maybe he’s just waiting a little while before wielding the axe). UKSA was the brainchild of the ex-science minister Paul Drayson who, although apparently well meaning, wasn’t really – in my opinion – up to the job of being science minister. It was interesting that the same person who suspected that UKSA may be a victim of the current cuts was very critical of Paul Drayson, something that wasn’t openly said prior to the election when everyone was trying to court Paul Drayson in an attempt to protect the physical sciences from any more budget cuts. I have been fairly critical of Paul Drayson in some earlier posts, but since he is no longer science minister, there’s no real need to spend any more time discussing his merits, or lack thereof. There seems to be a general consensus that David Willetts as science minister is a very positive step. There is a sense that he understands the value of science and, in particular, the value of fundametal science. He also seems very skeptical about the so-called impact agenda, something I’ve been pretty critical of in the past. Although I can’t say that I have high hopes for the future, it doesn’t seem quite as bleak as it could have seemed. Only time will tell.

The UK Space Agency

The new United Kingdom Space Agency (UKSA) was launched to a reasonable amount of fanfare today and according to some, anyone who was anyone was there. Clear proof that I’m not anyone. I’ve written about this before and my opinion hasn’t really changed much. I hate to be a killjoy, but I don’t really understand what the new UKSA is meant to do and quite why we are doing it.

One of the reasons I don’t quite get the logic is that the UK is already part of the European Space Agency (ESA). We spend something like £100 million a year to belong to ESA. What some might not realise is that according to juste retour we get all (or almost all) of this money back, either in the form of industrial contracts or contracts to universities and national research laboratories. Spending some money to try and ensure that these contracts are such that they will benefit the UK economy (i.e., go where we want them to go) is certainly a good thing, but do we really need our own space agency to do this. Also, ESA already carries out a large number of scientific missions and is intending to start manned space flights (one of the future astronauts is British, even though the UK does not – at this stage – contribute to ESA’s manned space flight programme). Is the UK really intending on doing any of these things independently of ESA? I really hope not and I doubt that this is ultimately the intention.

Reading the press release, most of what is mentioned is how important the space industry is to the UK economy. This may well be true, however, my rather cynical view is that it is actually the space industry that has been pushing for the formation of a space agency. Something like 40% of the UK economy is public and the space industry would like a larger chunk of this money. They may well be quite viable without this and have just been chancing their arm, but maybe this industry isn’t quite as self-reliant as we have been lead to believe. Whatever the reason, my opinion is that the real reason for the formation of a UK Space Agency is to try and strengthen the UK space industry, not to do more space science. Make no mistake, this may well be a good thing and making sure that the core of the space industry is secure and allowing them to then grow their business is a perfectly good thing. I just think we should be careful not to confuse a Space Agency that benefits the space industry with one that might benefit space science.

In fairness to what has been reported, there hasn’t actually been much mention of science and what seems to be the goal is growing the space industry from something worth about £6 billion a year to £40 billion a year. Admittedly, they are only investing something like £12 million a year of new money to do so, so if it succeeds it would end up being one of the shrewdest investments ever made. What is worrying is the possibility that the money to fund the new Space Agency will ultimately come out of the current science budget and that the government will actually invest very little – if any – new money. If it is true that the space industry can grow from a £6 billion a year industry to a £40 billion a year industry (and, assuming this is real growth and not just redirected public money, the government can expect to get a large part of this new wealth in the form of taxation.) they should be more than happy to throw new money at this new agency. This makes me wonder if anyone really believes this rhetoric and suggests – to me at least – that the main reason for the formation of this Space Agency is to satisfy Paul Drayson’s ego (and possibly some childish fantasies about space and astronauts).

Since I don’t really like being critical without suggesting alternatives, what do I think they should do. If some investment in the UK space industry will really reap huge rewards in the medium- to long-term then go ahead and do this. As far as space science and manned space flight is concerned (assuming we want to get involved) we should commit to ESA and make sure that our involvement is such that we can influence how the juste retour is reinvested in the UK economy. Of course, some other European countries (Italy and France) have their own Space Agencies, but it wouldn’t surprise me if they started reducing their roles – independently of ESA – sometime in the near future. Maybe they’ll announce something like this in the next few days just to embarrass us.

Yay – a British Space Agency

I’ve written about this before (here) but it seems, now, that a decision has finally been made that the UK will now have an executive agency for UK space and satellite industry. The title of the BNSC press release is actually quite instructive because until I went to that link everything I’d read interpreted this as a new British Space Agency and that it would have implications for British science. I, however, have great misgivings about this and the title of the BNSC press release is the reason why.

The reason I have misgivings is that I believe that the money to create this new agency will ultimately come out of the science budget and most people will probably assume that this is the right thing to do since a Space Agency presumably benefits scientists. I don’t, however, believe that this is the correct interpretation and the real reason – I believe – why we are forming this agency is not necessarily to benefit scientists, but to help British industry get a bigger chunk of the money being spent on space (primarily through ESA). As far as I can tell, British scientists are already quite successful at becoming involved in space missions. I was told a few days ago that at a recent ESA meeting where future space missions were discussed, 4 out of the 7 potential missions were lead by British scientists. They’re only likely to fund 2 of these missions, but it does illustrate the level of involvement of British scientists in these missions.

It’s possible that I am being overly cynical about this new agency, but the title of the BNSC press release makes me think that my concerns have some merit. It’s not necessarily that I think such an agency isn’t worth it, its that I think we will spend science money to benefit industry and us scientist will be expected to be pleased about this. If we believe that forming this agency will be of benefit to the UK economy then we should be willing to invest new money and not simply raid the science budget and pretend that this will ultimately be good for British science.

Climate change

I was at a party last night with a couple of geophysicists, one of whom had a particular interest in climate change. What was interesting was that one of them didn’t seem particularly convinced that we should necessarily worry about climate change. I asked about the relevance of Venus (which I blogged about here) and she seemed to think that even though Venus has a carbon dioxide rich atmosphere and has an equilibrium temperature of 700 K, we don’t know what the Earth’s equilibrium temperature would be if it’s atmosphere were much more carbon dioxide rich than it is now. She seemed to think that it may be the case that if we added as much carbon dioxide as we possibly could to the Earth’s atmosphere, the Earth might just heat up a little and then stabilise at some temperature slightly higher than it is today.

In fairness this wasn’t an argument against changing to renewable energy sources, but simply a suggestion that science hasn’t yet proven convincingly that adding lots of carbon dioxide to the Earth’s atmosphere could lead to runaway global warming. Although she may be strictly correct (i.e., that science hasn’t yet provided convincing prove), I still think that Venus’s properties suggests that it is reasonable to be worried (very?) about putting too much carbon dioxide into the Earth’s atmosphere.

As I discussed in an earlier post Venus being closer to the Sun resulted in more water vapour and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere which lead to a runaway greenhouse process, resulting in Venus having an equilibrium temperature of 700 K (500oC). What I didn’t mention in that post is that Venus reflects about 75% of the incident radiation from the Sun (the Earth reflects about 30%). This means that the amount of energy reaching the surface of Venus is actually less than the amount of energy reaching the surface of the Earth, even though Venus is closer to the Sun than the Earth.

So what does this tell us? It tells us that a planet that started off similar to the Earth but closer to the Sun (and hence receiving more Solar energy) has ended up with a surface temperature of 700 K, but now absorbs less energy from the Sun than the Earth (since the carbon dioxide rich atmosphere now reflects a large fraction of the incident radiation). Of course the Earth can’t undergo exactly the same process as Venus because for the same atmospheric conditions, the Earth’s surface has to receive less Solar Energy than the Sun.

However, the expected ratio of the temperature of Venus to the temperature of the Earth is 1.17:1 (i.e., Venus should be about 17 % hotter than the Earth). The difference is of course because Venus reached a tipping point where the process ran away, the temperature rose uncontrollably, water vapour and oxygen escaped from the atmosphere and the process only stabilised once essentially all the carbon dioxide was in the atmosphere and all the water vapour and oxygen had escaped. I guess this person I was speaking to was technically correct in that we don’t know where this tipping point is. What I think we do know is that if we reach it, we would expect the Earth’s temperature to stabilise at something like 630 K (357oC). The actual transmission properties of the atmosphere will influence this slightly, but it’s hard to see how it could be such as to produce a stable temperature significantly below this.

Ultimately this person’s main gripe seemed to be about how alarmist some of the climate change rhetoric can be. In principle I would tend to agree that any form of extremism is generally misguided and that with an educated society we should be able to approach this openly and honestly. Ultimately, however, this doesn’t seem to have worked very well so far. I happen to believe that climate change might be the greatest threat we’ve ever faced and if we are going to be extreme and alarmist about something, this might be it. The real problem seems to be that our leaders and politicians haven’t had the courage to do what really needs to be done and until we can rely on them to make the difficult decisions, I’m not sure what else we can do.

Global warming and the planet Venus

Global warming, as many know, can be a fairly contentious subject with some believing it’s not happening at all, others believing that it is but is not a consequence of human activity, and the rest believing it is indeed a consequence of human activity. Personally, I believe that the planet is warming and that it is a direct consequence of what we are doing. The main reason that I believe this is that although the carbon dioxide (CO2) concentration in the atmosphere has varied quite a lot over the last 400000 years, until about 1800 it had never been higher than 300 parts per million per volume (ppmv). It is now 385 ppmv. This rise in CO2 concentration also correlates with a rise in average temperature with, importantly, the rise in CO2 leading the rise in temperature.

Whatever anyone believes, I think it would be useful for people to have some understanding of the planet Venus. First, however, I should talk about planets in general, and the Earth in particular. It is fairly straightforward to show that the average temperature of a planet, in Kelvin (K), in the Solar System should be Tavg = 279 (1 – A)1/4rp-1/2, where rp is the distance of the planet from the Sun in Astronomical Units (AU – the distance of the Earth from the Sun), and A is the fraction of the incident radiation that is reflected and not involved in heating the planet.

For the Earth, rp = 1 and A = 0.29 (i.e., the Earth reflects 29 % of the incident radiation). The average temperature of the Earth should therefore be 256 K. The conversion from Kelvin to oC is 273 K = 0oC, so the average temperature of the Earth should be about -16oC. This clearly isn’t the case and in fact, the average temperature of the Earth is more like +15oC. Why is this? The Earth has an atmosphere that contains various molecules, in particular CO2 and water vapour. The radiation from the Sun is mainly in the optical, most of which passes easily through the atmosphere to be absorbed by the planet’s surface. The Earth, however, is much cooler than the Sun and so reemits radiation at longer wavelengths – mainly in the infrared. The atmosphere is not particularly transparent at these wavelengths, trapping them and causing the Earth to heat up. As the Earth gets hotter, the radiation it reemits moves to shorter and shorter wavelengths, allowing more and more energy to escape back into space. Eventually the Earth reaches a temperature where as much radiant energy escapes back into space as is absorbed from the Sun. The Earth has then reached it’s equilibrium temperature which, fortunately for us, produces an average temperature of 15oC. This is a form of greenhouse warning that is clearly beneficial to us.

Now, what about Venus. Venus is a planet that is very similar in size to the Earth and probably formed at about the same time as the Earth. It is quite likely that at some point in the distant past it may have had an atmosphere similar to the Earth’s. If we assume that it also would have reflected about 29% of the incident radiation, and knowing that for Venus rp = 0.723, then we would expect it’s average temperature to be about 301 K or 28oC. As with the Earth, global warming would cause Venus to heat up to a higher average temperature, but one might naively expect this to have less of an effect than on the Earth since Venus might already be hot enough to be reemiting radiation at a wavelength for which the atmosphere is reasonably transparent.

So, what is Venus’s actual average temperature. Today Venus has an average temperature of 480oC, more than 10 times hotter than we would expect based on the above calculation. The reason is that to prevent greenhouse warming, greenhouse gases like CO2 and water vapour need to be kept out of the atmosphere. On Earth, water is mainly liquid (oceans) and most of the CO2 has dissolved in this liquid water ultimately forming carbonate rocks. Because Venus started with a higher average temperature than the Earth, there would be more water vapour in the atmosphere and less liquid water. Since water vapour is also a greenhouse gas this would actually act to also cause Venus to heat up adding more water vapour into the atmosphere. The lack of liquid water also means that more of the CO2 would be in the atmosphere (rather than in the form of carbonate rocks) also causing more greenhouse warming. In the case of Venus this lead to a runaway process in which more and more water vapour and CO2 was added to the atmosphere causing the planet to heat up until it eventually reaches it’s current equilibrium temperature of 480oC. The water vapour would also be dissociated by UV photons allowing the constituents elements (hydrogen and oxygen) to escape into space. Ultimately Venus is a planet with almost no (if any) water and an atmosphere that is primarily composed of CO2.

Is this relevant to the Earth and to us. in some sense no, because what happened on Venus was almost certainly natural and occurred because Venus was closer to the Sun and hence had an initially higher average temperature. However, it is clear that it has undergone a runaway greenhouse process that increased it’s temperature from a value where liquid water should be able to exist to one where there is no water at all and no life could possibly survive. It also seems that an Earth-like planet with an average temperature of 30 – 40oC could easily undergo this process. Although the Earth’s average temperature is somewhat lower than this, it’s not quite as far away as we might like. We also don’t really know at what temperature this runaway process actually starts. Currently it is predicted that the Earth’s average temperature will rise by more than 1o C per century. If this continues, this means it will take only a thousand years or so to reach a temperature at which the runaway greenhouse process should start. However, whatever anyone actually believes is happening at the moment, the fact that the runaway greenhouse process has actually happened on a planet that initially was not significantly different to our own should at least, in my view, give us pause for thought.

The British Space Agency

Today is the start of a 12 week consultation to help decide whether or not the UK should start a British Space Agency. Currently British space interest are overseen by the British National Space Council (BNSC) . The BNSC does not currently have much power and it appears that much of the UK’s involvement in space is somewhat disjointed and disorganised. If the goal is to create a single agency that will oversee and directly manage all of the UK’s involvement in space in a coherent and sensible way, this may well be a good thing. My impression, however, is that the goal is somewhat more than simply coordinating current activities.

The UK is already has a reasonably active space sector involved in building satellites or parts of satellites. According to the Department of Business Innovations and Skills’ press release, this sector employs 68000 people and generates 6.5bn for the UK economy. I have no idea where these numbers come from, but my initial impression is that they may have defined the space sector somewhat broadly. The creation of a British Space Agency suggests (and this is backed up by some of the wording in the BIS press relese) that there is a desire to spend more on the space sector. One rather selfish concern I have is that rather than this being new money (which seems unlikely in the current financial climate) this will simply be a redistribution of existing money, probably coming out of the existing research council’s budget. In theory the government has every right to reprioritise how it spends it’s money. What concerns me is that they will badge this as something that will benefit fundamental science and that all of us involved in anything related to space should be thankful that the government is committed to developing a vibrant space sector. Although fundamental science may well benefit from some space activities, it is my opinion that space activities should really be badged as technology development (i.e., essentially applied science). Of course if the government were to openly acknowledge that they were intending to cut funding for fundamental science in order to fund space activities because they regarded the resulting technology development as of more value than the results of fundamental science, I may well be disappointed, but at least I wouldn’t be able to accuse the government of being devious.

One of the arguments for increased spending in the space sector is that it will be of benefit to the UK economy through potential spin-offs and because this sector could engage in civil space activities that could generate income for the UK. There is, however, a view (a somewhat cynical one to be honest) that in fact the UK space industry is not actually viable and that the only way it can survive is to try and get some of the public money that is currently being spent on other research activities. If this is the case, then it is likely that the pressure to increase the UK’s involvement in space is coming from the industry itself, rather than from the scientific community. In 2007 the House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology decided that a UK Space Agency was only worth considering if there was a significant increase in civil spending in this sector. According to a recent BBC article Paul Drayson, the current Minister of Science believes, on the other hand, that increased UK involvement is worthwhile even if there is no increased commitment from the civil sector (or at least that’s how I have interpreted what he is quoted as saying). If the potential economic benefits are so great, why is the civil sector not clamoring to increase it’s investment in this area.

Well, what about the European Space Agency (ESA). Currently we spend about £250M a year to belong to ESA. Personally I happen to be in favour of the UK being more involved and embedded in Europe. The European Union (EU) may have issues to sort out, but in the long term we will be better off in the EU than not. Rather than investing additional money in a British Space Agency, why not simply become more engaged with ESA. ESA probably has some issues of its own, but if we engage more with it, we can play a role in redefining how it operates. Eventually (and this may take time) we can take pride – as Europeans – in a successful European Space Agency, rather than potentially being embarrassed that we tried and failed to operate a successful British Space Agency (maybe we won’t fail but space is so expensive that it seems unlikely that any countries other than China, Russia, the USA and maybe India can have viable, independent Space Agencies).

What do I think will happen? At the moment we seem to have a science minister (Paul Drayson) and a CEO of the Science and Technology Facilities Council (Keith Mason) who both appear to be in favour of more UK involvement in the space sector, so I think there will be a lot of pressure for this to go ahead. Do I think it’s a good idea? If ultimately a British Space Agency is formed that essentially optimises our existing involvement in ESA, then probably yes. If, on the other hand, Britain decides to carry out space activities independently of ESA, or in addition to what it does within ESA, then I suspect that we will regret this in the long run.