Introduction to Rocket Science Day!


Yesterday I had the pleasure of attending the British Interplanetary Society’s An Introduction to Rocket Science day at the Royal Institution’s Faraday Theatre (yes, the same as where the BBC’s Christmas Lectures are broadcast from). Below are the lectures with the blurb from the invite and a comment or two from me.

nigel Why can’t we simply fly to space in a plane?

Dr Nigel Bannister of the Department of Physics & Astronomy at the University of Leicester will explain all this with the help of isopropyl alcohol!

This lecture was how we get to space with chemical rockets and why they are so limited. Bottom line was with the know materials we got, rockets have to have stages. The demonstration of how to produce thrust using an empty water dispensing bottle was spectacular!  

kenyon How to build a spacecraft
Building satellites, propulsion and power – a “Haynes manual”. Shaun Kenyon, Chief Engineer at Sen Corporation will explain all.

This lecture explained what propulsion options were currently available – chemical and nuclear fission. He also explained the need for many different science, engineering and project management specialists to get spacecraft doing what they need to do. 

stuttard So what have satellites done for us?
Satnav, satcom, weather forecasts and whales in the cloud. Matthew Stuttard, the Head of Advanced Space Projects at Airbus, Stevenage takes the helm.

A good example was monitoring the health of crops of space by measuring chlorophyll a and chlorophyll b (the chemical used to turn sunlight into plant energy through photosynthesis).

647 Open Innovation – disrupting the space industry
Dr Olesya Myakonkaya, Senior Innovation Scientist will talk about how citizen science and start ups change the way we innovate.

The emphasis seemed to be on biological technology innovation at the moment. One example was of a new method to prevent the destruction of DNA from radiation. A second method was to prevent effectively what was biological slime build up – which came from an observation of how coral reefs prevented slime build up! 

cawthorne  Observing our planet from above
EO, LEO, GEO. There are lots of acronyms to do with space. Earth Observation – EO; the first of these acronyms – enables us to monitor global warming, see land use changes such as urbanisation and more. Andrew Cawthorne, Head of Earth Observation at Surrey Satellite Technology Limited will explain EO (LEO and GEO too!)

The before and after examples what was going on in say the Amazon Rain Forest were spectacular.

welch Beyond Earth orbit
Designing better rockets and using new technology help us explore new worlds. Professor Chris Welch, Head of Astronautics and Space Engineering at the International Space University, Strasbourg will look further into the Solar System.

Given the politics at the moment – the speaker made a note to say that the Brexit vote does not affect the UK membership of ESA (European Space Agency). He should know!

We currently have chemical and nuclear fission spacecraft. He described electro-propulsion methods that are being used and developed further. It was interesting to note that the last were responsible for the slow to get there spacecraft because they could only produce limited power, which in turn means that they are likely to be robotic spacecraft!

He also described the new small spacecraft that are able to do cheaper missions and the like.  

hutty How to go to Mars
Abbie Hutty, Spacecraft Structures Engineer on the ExoMars Rover Vehicle Team at Airbus, Stevenage will talk about building a rover to explore the Red Planet.

A good demonstration of the problem of distance of getting to Mars!

pollacco  E.T. Phone Home!
Hello? Hello? Is there anybody out there? The Drake equation, life, methane, alien mega-structures and the Goldilocks zone are explained by Dr Don Pollacco of the Department of Physics, University of Warwick.

A good talk about the Drake equation and the impact of finding exo-planets on its values.

714  What’s it like living in space?
NASA astronaut Cady Coleman will give an illustrated talk about her life aboard the International Space Station.

A good talk about life on the space station, in terms of both work and pleasure. Interesting point is that the most precious resource up there is the astronaut’s time. Sounds to me as if we could do with another space station up there, but I hope with the advancement of technology since the original was built, costing less money.

zarnecki Space exploration
A guide on where we’ve got to so far and where we are going next. Dr John Zarnecki, President of the Royal Astronomical Society will take us on a tour of the galaxy.

A good whizz through of space exploration. Concentrated on the Cassini-Huygens probe in which he had a lot of involvement.

bridges What’s next?
Nearly fifty years ago now, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped onto the Moon. Are we on our way to Mars now or even further? Or will robotic missions take us further to other solar systems? Dr Chris Bridges, Lecturer in On-Board Data Handling at the University of Surrey takes us on a tour.

This concentrated on getting data from space telescopes and what the problems of getting ever bigger telescopes up there was. It was especially interesting to see the way the telescopic mirrors were being built up – piece by piece. The latest telescope will be able to adjust mirrors automatically rather than have astronauts needing to go up there and do the adjustments as they had to do on the Hubble telescope. 

tate We’re doomed! Or are we?
At any moment, Earth could be hit by an asteroid or comet which would wipe us out as happened to the dinosaurs. But Jay Tate, Director of The Spaceguard Centre is here to tell us if we might be safe after all.

A good walk through of the problems and issues of possible asteroid impact on Earth. 


My thanks to all those who helped made this day a success. It not only gave a good introduction to space technology and exploration to those newly interested in the subject, but also gave a good overview of what the state of play in the UK space industry was today – something every science fiction writer writing about near future space needs.

Science fiction wise I came away with an idea for a new story  ( 🙂 ) .

I was also saddened by a fact that came out during one talk (I won’t say which). I had come across something by pure accident in my science fiction writing that would have added further enlightenment to that talk. Despite my best efforts, I could not get that story published and having exhausted all the reasonable ways of getting it into print, it will now never be published. This is just one case where the science will be the poorer for the lack of science fiction. I suspect there are quite a few more such examples.

Science fiction deals with future possibilities. The publishing industry does not have the capacity or the will to publish all the new possibilities that the genre writers are presenting. It has now got to the stage where the scientific bodies are setting up competitions for short stories to get those ideas. (For example, there is a current competition call from the Machine Intelligence Research Institute – see here.) That such institutes are willing to go to the effort of doing their homework and setting up such competitions means only one thing to me. The publishing industry has failed the science community.

The most interesting oddball fact of the day was that Isaac Newton invented the cat flap! I’ve got a funny feeling C.A.T. may have something to say about that! (It’s like George Stephenson inventing the cucumber straightener!)

Now back to that crazy idea I had…

3 thoughts on “Introduction to Rocket Science Day!

  1. My wife always laugh at the phrase, “It’s not rocket science” when it’s implying that such science is difficult. She is a physicist – educationalist and often taught rocket science. She says it’s dead easy compared to most other aspects of modern life and that it’s rocket engineering that’s hard, not the science.

  2. I would’ve liked to see Jay Tate’s talk on the implications of an asteroid impact. I wonder if that talk is somewhere on YouTube.

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