Friday, 30 April 2010

UK Team develop award-winning ion engine

QinetiQ Ion Engine
QinetiQ’s ion propulsion team has been named “team of the year” for its outstanding contribution to space exploration at the recent Sir Arthur C. Clarke Awards.
The award comes at the end of a landmark year for the QinetiQ ion propulsion team which saw the European Space Agency’s (ESA’s) GOCE Spacecraft become the first to launch with QinetiQ’s T5 ion thrusters on board and QinetiQ begin work supplying advanced T6 thrusters for ESA’s future BepiColombo mission to Mercury.

“We knew about the nomination but winning the award came as a complete surprise to all of us,” commented the team’s Chief engineer, Neil Wallace, as he accepted the award. “It was a great team effort and reflects the hard work of many individuals for almost 20 years.”
He added: “2009 was a busy and exciting year for the Ion Engine Team and we’re thrilled to have our work on the GOCE and BepiColombo spacecraft recognised with this award. Electric propulsion will make spacecraft and satellites lighter, allowing more weight for the real payload, and we are delighted to be at the leading edge of this technology.”

The Sir Arthur Clarke Awards are presented annually at the climax of the UK Space Conference to honour those who have done the most to further the field of space exploration in the past year.

Previous winners have included the ESA ATV team, responsible for creating the Spacecraft which keeps supplies flowing to the International Space Station and the Huygens team which landed the first spacecraft on Saturn’s moon, Titan. QinetiQ beat off fierce competition from fellow nominees SSTL and ESA to win this year’s honour.

Chair of the judging panel, Dr. Lesley Wright said that “This was an outstanding achievement by the QinetiQ team which the judges view as a significant contribution to space exploration.”

The T5 and T6 ion thrusters developed by QinetiQ are ten times more efficient than the chemical engines traditionally used to propel spacecraft making some deep space missions possible for the first time. For ESA’s Bepi Colombo mission to Mercury, the engines make the mission possible by counteracting the sun’s gravitational pull.

Thursday, 29 April 2010

John Freeman at Sci-Fi-London

A quick reminder of two panels I’ll be appearing on at Sci-Fi-London on Saturday (1st May 2010).

60 Years of Dan Dare
A panel on 60 years of the lantern jawed space pilot. Alex Fitch will be talking to: Garry Leach, who drew Dan’s return to print in 2000AD, ten years after the end of the original Eagle, in the late 1970s and more recently covers for Virgin comics’ revival of the ‘Pilot of the future’ in 2008.

Rian Hughes, who drew the Eagle-inspired comic The Science Service in 1989 and then the Mekon’s final revenge in the Thatcherite satire Dare in the adult comics Revolver and Crisis a year later; Gary Erskine, who drew Dan Dare’s most recent official comic book adventures in the Virgin Comics periodical of the same name; Titan Books Dan Dare collections editor John Freeman, who previously wrote The Science Service and now writes the strip Ex Astris in the Dan Dare magazine Spaceship Away; and Rod Barzilay, the editor and one of the writers of Spaceship Away.

• 60 Years of Dan Dare runs from 10.30am on Saturday 1st May

30 years of Marvel UK

Alex Fitch hosts a panel on the British arm of the American Superhero publisher, featuring: Dez Skinn, a pioneering Marvel UK editor who launched titles such as Hulk Comic and Doctor Who Magazine , which featured early licensed work by Alan Moore, David Lloyd, Pat Mills and Dave Gibbons; Dan Abnett, who gave Captain Britain a new, darker spin in the 1990s by adding him to an Arthurian team of heroes with Gary Erskine, co-creator of the Knights of Pendragon; John Freeman, who edited many of Marvel UK’s early 1990s titles such as Death’s Head II, Warheads, Killpower and Motormouth, contributing strips to several issues as well, and also edited Doctor Who Magazine; and Simon Furman, primary writer for Marvel’s Transformers, and a dozen issues of Doctor Who Magazine. He created some of Marvel UK’s most memorable SF titles including Dragon Claws and Death’s Head.

• 30 years of Marvel UK runs from 11.45 am, Saturday 1st May

All the events – there are plenty more comic-related events – take place at the Apollo Piccadilly Cinema, 19 Lower Regent Street, London, SW1Y 4LR. More info at

Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Inker Appeal from Ex Astris comic creator

Bill Storie – my colleague and creator of the Ex Astris strip – has too much work on his plate at the moment and he’s looking for a reliable UK-based inker to work with him.

“There just aren’t enough hours in the day!” says Bill. “I’m currently working on three CGI strips (Ex Astris and two others for a US company) as well as pencils and inks on a new project written by a rather famous UK creator for the European market – but John (Freeman) and I have two more projects which we’re keen to get off the ground.

“Whilst I’m quite fast at pencilling, I’m criminally slow when it comes to inking — so we need to recruit another member for our team who can take care of the inking.”

Bill has sent me pencil samples of his art from one of the new projects (click the image above for full size).

“Unfortunately there are no contracts up for grabs at the moment and therefore no guarantees of untold riches etc – yet!,” Mike points out. “The new projects have not been approved for publication yet and so we can offer no money up front. But John and I have a pretty good record for getting our projects published so you’ll just have to look at the art and decide if you feel we’re worth taking a chance on.”

Monday, 19 April 2010

The battle for Earth’s resources

One of the background elements of Ex Astris is the growing environmental problems facing Earth, right now. So it was interesting to read this a statement from US Rare Earths, Inc. (, a privately owned company, which commended the US Government Accountability Office on its report documenting that China, supplier of 97% of the world’s rare earths, dominates the supply of rare earth materials crucial to the US defence, computer and renewable energy sectors.

Seems to me that the battle for resources (and their exploiatation) is rich territory for Ex Astris “back story” tales.The report, commissioned by Congress, resulted from concerns that China could reduce the rare earth materials supply, curbing US production of guided missiles and other defence weapons as well as commercial products such as computer hard drives, cell phones, MRI machines, hybrid autos and wind turbines, among other sophisticated technologies that employ rare earth materials.

“The GAO report is a timely warning that the US needs to ramp up its domestic production of both light and heavy rare earths immediately,” argues US Rare Earths, Inc. Chief Executive Officer Edward Cowle.

We can bet that will go down well with environmental groups in the US, as the extraction of ‘rare earths’ must, I’m sure have some environmental cost, just like oil, for example, does.
“Idaho, Montana and Colorado were mentioned in the GAO report as states where there was an availability of rare earths,” notes Cowle. Quite by coincidence: “These are the states where US Rare Earths, Inc. owns the mineral rights to the light and heavy rare earths referenced in the latest U.S.G.S. reports.”

The report notes that less-abundant, and more valuable, heavy rare earth ore deposits are currently found in southern China, but such deposits have also been identified in Australia, Greenland, Canada, and the United States. Sounds like a recipe for some

“Perhaps the likeliest source of heavy rare earth elements in the US comes from the deposit at Diamond Creek, Idaho, owned by US Rare Earths, Inc.” notes Cowle. “The US Geological Survey (U.S.G.S.) also lists some heavy rare earth elements at the company’s Lemhi Pass deposits on the Idaho-Montana border.

As you can imagine, US Rare Earths stock is considered a hot commodity as investors realize the potential for this company to make a killing, with some scientists predicting a rare earths shortage will hit in about 10 years.

“Rare earths are essential raw materials used in nearly all sustainable energy technologies and a wide spectrum of defence applications,” argues Cowle. “Our rare earth deposits could help supply the projected demand of the United States military and civilian green industries and would assist in eliminating the dependence the United States currently has on Chinese sources.”

US Rare Earths’ founders started the company 15 years ago with its Lehmi Pass deposits. At the time, reports moneyblog, they were only interested in the concentration of thorium, which provides an alternative to nuclear fuel. After 15 years and countless technological innovations, US Rare Earths now finds itself in the position of owning the only known rare earth deposits in the country and for the time being, is concentrating on mining the Diamond Creek land in Idaho because it is closer to civilization and thus more “mining friendly.” But the costs involved in exploiting even these are, apparently, daunting (see this MSNBC report).

Saturday, 3 April 2010

Terraforming Mars – FOCUS points the way

Ever wondered what we’re going to be up to in a couple of centuries time? Science fiction author extraordinaire Stephen Baxter reckons we could have colonised Mars by then, in a feature for the current issue of the BBC science magazine FOCUS which has been out for a couple of weeks but I only spotted it on my way out of the UK for a well-earned break.

In the April issue, ace science fiction author Stephen Baxter writes on how we’d terraform the Red Planet, while Stuart Clark delivers a piece called “Mining the Moon”, looking at the resources we could get – and how. Plus, there’s an interview with a man who researches warp drive and hyperspace travel and a great piece on what our alien neighbours might look like.

Focus is the BBC’s science and technology monthly magazine, described as jargon-free and accessible, so “you don’t need a PhD in particle physics to enjoy reading it”. All you need is a quizzical mind that wants to understand the world around you, and gain a fact or two to keep up your sleeve in a pub quiz emergency.

The issue is well worth picking up if you’re interested in space exploration.

Life Science in Space

NASA scientists are sending three fundamental life science experiments onboard space shuttle Discovery in hopes of better understanding exactly how spaceflight affects cell growth and how cells fight off infections. Future astronauts on long-term space missions need to understand how wounds heal and cells become infected in space to prevent illnesses during space travel.When space shuttle Discovery hurtles into orbit after its scheduled launch on 5th April, in addition to the multi-purpose logistics module filled with science racks for the laboratories aboard the station it will carry seven astronauts, two Space Tissue Loss experiments and 16 mice as it rendezvous with the International Space Station.

“As we expand humanity’s reach to other planets we must learn how to live in space for prolonged periods of time,” said Eduardo Almeida, the Space Tissue Loss’s Stem Cell Regeneration experiment principal investigator and scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Calironia. “Understanding how space affects stem cell health is critical to exploration because our health relies on normal tissue repair and regenerative functions.”

Stem Cell Regeneration experiment will study how embryonic stem cells develop into specialized tissue types, or “differentiate” in space. The experiment will use mouse embryonic stem cells and embryoid bodies, or ball-shaped collections of embryonic stem cells, as a model to study the effects of microgravity on adult stem cells’ ability to carry out their normal function of repairing and regenerating tissues. Scientists compare the embryoid body to an early stage of development in mammals because embryonic stem cells can differentiate into any of the body’s many cell types.

In the weeks leading up to launch, scientists working on the Stem Cell Regeneration experiment at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, Florida, grew mouse embryonic stem cells and prepared them for flight. Scientists will take the embryonic stems cells grown in the laboratory and place them into bioreactors, which are installed into an incubator that fits into a shuttle middeck locker, where they will remain during flight.

“We are trying to get at the root cause of tissue degeneration in space,” said Almeida. “We hope our research will help find preventive measures to address adult stem cell health in microgravity.”

The second Space Tissue Loss (STL) experiment, STL-Immune, led by principal investigator Cheryl Nickerson, associate professor of life sciences at the Center for Infectious Diseases and Vaccinology in the Biodesign Institute at Arizona State University, will be the first fundamental biology experiment to conduct an in-flight infection of human cells using pathogenic bacteria. Nickerson’s experiment will characterize the effect of microgravity on intestinal cellular responses before and after Salmonella infection during space flight.

“In addition, this experiment also closely monitors human cells giving us unique insight into conditions faced by astronauts during spaceflight, as well as how cells in our bodies normally behave or transition to disease caused by infection, immune disorders or cancer,” said Nickerson. “Only by studying how cells respond to microgravity can we reveal important biological characteristics that are masked by normal gravity when using traditional experimental approaches on Earth.”

The Immune experiment will help scientists determine whether bacterial responses to spaceflight are also seen in human cells.

“Better understanding how microbes and human cells interact in space can lead to novel vaccines and therapeutics for the general public against infectious disease, as well as other human diseases,” added Nickerson. “Our research has potential benefits and applications for life on Earth and astronauts on long-duration space missions.”

Mouse Immunology, the third space-based experiment, will study the influence of microgravity on mice immune systems. The experiment’s principal investigator, Millie Hughes-Fulford, former NASA astronaut and professor in the Departments of Medicine and Urology at the University of California, San Francisco will test whether an immune system response to a new infection or re-infection is affected by spaceflight.

“Mouse immunology will allow us to pinpoint which genes and pathways are or aren’t working or performing well in space,” said Hughes-Fulford. “We will examine all 8,000 genes of the mouse thymus cell to determine the molecular cause of a suppressed immune system.”

Before launch, half of the mice in both the group that will fly to space and the control group that will stay on Earth received white blood cells that had been inoculated with thymus cells, or white blood cells, that were exposed to a foreign protein challenge. The other half of the mice will not be exposed until immediately after they return from space. Scientists will analyze whether the mice that received white blood cells react differently than those that were not pre-exposed.

All three experiments are managed by the International Space Station Non-Exploration Projects Office at NASA Ames. The NASA Ames Flight Systems Implementation Branch and Space Biosciences Division developed and implemented the Mouse Immunology and Space Tissue Loss payloads, which were all funded by the Advanced Capabilities Division in the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate at NASA’s Headquarters, Washington.

The Walter Reed Army Institute of Research based in Silver Spring, Maryland, provided the hardware and the Department of Defense’s Space Test Program developed the payload and managed the hardware integration for the Space Tissue Loss Experiments.

• For more information about science on the International Space Station, visit:
• For more information about the Space Biosciences Division at NASA Ames, visit: