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We've started a blog on the site to open up discussion - and we're also linking up with a new online discussion forum, to encourage your views and ideas about the exploration of space.

Green ideas in blue skies?

by Howie Firth - 15:28 on 13 May 2009

Should we encourage millionaires to spend money on space holidays? Should any space or air travel be encouraged at all? Should technology be channelled to solve problems here on earth, before opening up new frontiers?

The fledgling space tourism industry is being challenged in its early stages. There are comments, for instance, in the Guardian and the Ecologist.

I have strong views on climate change, and for more than twenty years I've been trying to help to get the message across, to point out that we are nationally and internationally failing to take the simple and logical steps that are needed for our long-term survival. But I believe that from an environmental view, space tourism is a very encouraging development. Here's why.

First, for technology. Our global society cannot do without air travel. So we have to find ways to make it more energy-efficient. The new lightweight spacecraft are pushing forward technologies like carbon composites. These can be applied to aircraft design to cut weight and reduce fuel usage.

And new modes of operation can be tried. We are now seeing a resurgence of interest in Alan Bond's HOTOL concept a rocketplane that climbs out of the atmosphere and flies through space to its distant destination.

So the space tourism industry can act as a stimulus and a test-bed for new approaches to aviation fuel efficiency.

Research in the upper atmosphere

There is also the potential to expand research on greenhouse gas levels.

The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration needs direect data from the upper atmosphere, but its aircraft can only go up to 25,000 feet. Weather balloons are some help above that, but their flight paths are erratic. Virgin Galactic have agreed to take up instruments for the NOAA in their mothership and spacecraft.

So with WhiteKnightTwo they can get data from up to 50,000 feet, and with SpaceShipTwo up to 110 kilometres. This will give information about an area where not nearly enough is known the upper stratosphere, mesosphere and lower thermosphere.

These regions are important for climate models, so to open up access to them will potentially be a big help to the process of gathering data, checking models, and calibrating present and future satellite measurements.

Information about greenhouse gas concentrations at these levels will give information about the rate of climate change. This is particularly important since one of the arguments put forward by climate change sceptics is an alleged discrepancy between satellite data and ground level measurements.

But in addition, the Virgin Galactic technology opens up a new way for the launch of small satellites. The company are developing the concept of a two-stage rocket, air-launched from the WhiteKnightTwo carrier ship, to put a satellite of up to 200 kilograms into low earth orbit.

That would solve a problem for companies like Surrey Satellite Technology who have difficulty in finding a space on the big satellite rocket launches. Two-thirds of the company's satellite missions are below 200 kilograms. They have considerable expertise in climate monitoring technology, for instance in equipment to study cloud structures from above and to measure heat radiation inputs and outputs on the edge of the earth's atmosphere again key areas of study in the work on climate change.

The potential applications of micro-satellites are growing rapidly. For example, the Scottish company Clyde Space is developing a very small satellite fitted with a camera, for tracking bush fires. The availability in the UK of simple and flexible satellite launches would open up many new opportunities.

Solar satellites

There is also the possibility of an even bigger picture the potential of space tourism to open up for the wider development of space: and what this can mean for energy sources as well as energy usage.

Already a Californian company has come up with a proposal to generate solar electricity in space and beam it down to earth.

Solaren will assemble a satellite by docking several units sent up by a heavy-launch system. Up above the atmosphere's haze, the panels will operate at a very high efficiency level. The satellite would convert the electricity to radio-frequency transmissions and beam them down to a receiving station, for conversion into power for the grid. It would be an orbiting solar farm.

The company say they'll use developments of existing technology, and they've already got a sale agreed with California's biggest energy utility, starting in 2016.

Like any new technology, they will have big challenges to overcome but we're now seeing serious investment going in to a type of power that would be clean and green.

Tackling it

Going back to Virgin Galactic, there's one further reason for wanting to see the new opening up of space continue. Richard Branson's approach is encapsulated in the title of his book Screw it, Let's Do It. That spirit of determination to tackle anything is what the world needs right now.

We've had many years when we've shrunk back from facing up to climate change, let alone do anything serious about it. If we're going to have any chance of coping with the consequences, we need to have the spirit typified by Richard Branson in all his activities, from setting up a spaceline to going round the world in a hot-air balloon.

That's the spirit that can inspire countries to get through wars, and young people to take up science and technology and change the world.

So screw it, let's do it! Let's back Virgin Galactic in leading the exploration of a new frontier and in spreading that spirit of determination and adventure in all the places on the earth where it's needed right now.

That's my view anyway I'd like to hear yours.


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