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Ben Gilliland's blog

Skylon: A brilliantly British spaceplane

In the early imaginings of spaceflight, astronauts were carried into the cosmos by rockets that took off and landed and took of again. It wasn’t until we discovered just how much heft was required to toss a craft out of Earth’s gravity that the single-stage idea was abandoned.

The reality of spaceflight since then has been multistage rockets that, like giant eczematous centipedes, shed layer upon layer of rocket booster as they clamber labouriously skyward.

Over the years, there have been many attempts to build single-stage reusable spacecraft, but, plagued by technical and financial problems, they have always been abandoned. Now a British firm, Reaction Engines, believe they have the problem solved – and the solution is a brilliantly British spaceplane, called Skylon.

[Graphic: Science fiction made real – Meet the Skylon spaceplane. Click to launch]

Is the James Webb Telescope doomed?

Hubble's successor faces the chop

[Graphic: Meet the James Webb Space Telscope. Click to massificate)

Few could argue that Hubble is the ‘daddy’ of all space telescopes. In its twenty years of operation, it has pushed back the boundaries of astronomy and physics, sent back images that have captured the imagination of an entire planet and provided PC screen savers to a generation. But all good things come to an end and, although more powerful than ever, Hubble’s days are numbered but will its successor be given its chance to step into 'daddy's' shoes?

Close to Earth, space is a bit rubbish

The growing space junk problem

If indeed there is a god occupying the heavens, then he must be pretty fed up by now.

His heavenly sphere, once offered unobstructed panoramas of Earth’s blue vistas and (aside from the occasional fleeting visit by wandering comets) he could relax in its infinite isolation. However, since the arrival of the space age, the heavens have become a pretty crowded place and today any heavenly dwellers seeking to enjoy the view are likely to get a bullet-like shard of paint through the eye for their trouble.

[Graphic: Space junk facts and figures – click to make bigger]

In fact since the launch of Sputnik in 1957, mankind has lofted more than 6,500 satellites into god’s backyard. Add to that some spent rocket stages and other bits and bobs travelling at more than 28,000 kilometres per hour and (one or two collisions later) you have swarm of space debris more numerous than the locust visited upon Ancient Egypt (and far more dangerous).

Europe seeks lunar water

(and looks to Britain to help turn on the tap)

It has been almost four decades since mankind last set foot on the Moon and, with Nasa’s triumphant return cancelled, it could be some time before he does so again. But just because the Americans are out of the race, it doesn’t mean the rest of the world is. India, China, Japan and Russia all have lunar conquest in their sights – the Russians even plan a bona fide Moon base by 2035 – and the European Space Agency isn’t going to be left out.

[Graphic: Nasa's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter – getting to know the Moon]

When the Sun goes to sleep...

...does the Earth freeze?

In the last week, the world’s media have been getting very excited about the Sun. It started with reports from America that the Sun’s magnetic field is weakening and that the Sun could be entering a period of decreased activity, or even go into some sort of solar-hibernation. There have been predictions that the solar shut-down could counteract global warming or that it might herald the arrive of a new Ice Age, but what’s really happening and how will it effect our little, blue planet?

Firstly, although our knowledge of the mechanisms that drive the Sun has greatly increased in recent years, there is still an awful lot we don’t know how it works and how it interacts with the rest of the solar system – Earth included.

Our planet inhabits an exotic, complex and inherently hostile environment. Above the protective cocoon of our atmosphere and magnetic field is a seething soup of electrified and magnetised matter, seasoned with a hefty slug of energetic particles and radiation. Some of this comes in the form of cosmic radiation from outside of our solar system, but much of it comes from our Sun. This radiation has lots of obvious effects on the planet but many of its influences are far subtler with a multitude of variables (many of which we haven’t even begun to understand) affecting the ultimate outcome.

Rosetta spies its target

Space probe takes a pic and then a nap

Rosetta is an pretty cool little probe launched in 2004. The European Space Agency probe will go into orbit around the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in 2014 and, once there, it will deploy a lander and (hopefully) sample the comet's surface.

Now, after eight years of lonely truckin', Rosetta has its target in sight and has returned the first images.

Image: Rosetta closes in on comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko – click to zoomify

It might not look like much, but the images (taken by OSIRIS – Optical, Spectroscopic, and Infrared Remote Imaging System) required a total exposure time of 13 hours.

The plucky little craft is still more than 160 million kilometres from its final destination and, now that it has snapped its quarry, it will now shut down and wait out the rest of its journey in hibernation mode.

The spacecraft will receive a wake up call in January 2014 ready for its rendevous in July 2014. (Graphics about Rosetta and comet-type stuff below)

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