Friday, 30 October 2009

Could Britain Ever Have Its Own Spaceport?

The Constellation Program's Ares I-X
test rocket roars off Launch Complex 39B
at NASA's Kennedy Space Center
in Florida.
Image credit: NASA/Jim Grossmann
With the recent launch of the new US Aries rocket, I was reminded that Britain has its own space program – but of course we never had a “space base” like Cape Kennedy in the UK. However, given the number of space companies based in the Isle of Man, might the UK ever have its own rocket launch site, as seen in comic strips such as Eagle’s Dan Dare? Perhaps even on the Isle of Man?

Sadly, Ex Astris tech genius Jeremy Briggs, who wrote a piece on the British Rocket Programme for Spaceship Away (it’s in issue 12 if you would like to read it – back issues are still available) tells me the answer is almost certainly no.

The problem mainly boils down to Britain’s location on our planet. Most satellites are put into an orbit that spins with the planet and the planet spins anticlockwise looking down on it from the north pole. This spin of the Earth to the east is used by rockets to get a little extra momentum for free by launching them to the east.

Therefore you need a launch site which is clear to the east (normally ocean) like NASA’s Kennedy Space Centre or the European Space Agency’s Kourou, which both allow spent stages to fall into the Atlantic Ocean.

“Launching from the Isle of Man would leave spent stages or failed launches falling on England,” our resident boffin expands. “The UK does not have any good potential launch sites because of our geographical location – Shetland is the only likely candidate and that is very remote but even then, the Scandinavian countries would complain.

“The rocket engine test sites used for the Blue Streak, Black Knight and White Arrow rockets were Spadeadam near Carlisle and the Isle of Wight because they were accessible but poorly populated,” he continues. “There was never any suggestion that launches would take place from either of them.

“The spin of the Earth is used by rockets to get a little extra momentum for free and the most spin occurs where the surface of the planet is spinning the fastest – the equator. However, most of the equator is ocean and the land is mainly third world countries. Therefore, most of the space countries set up rocket launch sites which are as close to the equator as is possible in their own territory. This was a problem for the USSR, who also needed their site to be secret ie far away from NATO spy planes, and they ended up building in a desolate land locked area at Tyuratam instead.

Tas and the Space Machine, the first of
two "Tas" books
published in 1955 and set at Woomera.
Image via
“Since we didn’t have anywhere desolate enough in the UK for non-orbital rocket flight testing in the 1950s the British Empire came into play and Outback Australia was the best candidate – hence the range at Woomera, which is about the size of England. Reginald Alec Martin, writing as EC Eliot, set his two 1955 Tas books, illustrated by Eagle comics artist Bruce Cornwell, there.”

So, no spacebase near Blackpool then, although of course Britain does contribute to the ESA and British-born astronauts have gone into space. Plus, of course, private space company Virgin Galactic‘s owner Richard Branson is both British and a Dan Dare fan!
Fictional private space companies, of course, play a major part in Ex Astris…

Web Links

The British Space Program: Wikipdia
British National Space Centre
History of British Rocketry
Information on Blue Streak
Virgin Galactic
Author Reginald Alec Martin on Collecting Books and Magazines

Saturday, 10 October 2009

NASA’s Hitch Hiker Fans ‘Tweet’ Their Praise

Penguin Books and NASA have very different ideas about celebrating the 30th anniversary of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
NASA did it by having their LCROSS (Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite) vehicle tweeting lines from Hitchhiker’s, just before it slammed into the moon’s surface earlier this week.Quoting the lines from Douglas Adam’s Hitchhiker’s Guide as a whale, brought accidentally and improbably into existence by last Earthman Arthur Dent, falls towards the surface of the planet Magrathea, it tweeted:

# “And what’s this thing coming toward me very fast? So big and flat and round,
about 4 hours ago from web
# it needs a big wide sounding name like ‘Ow’, ‘Ownge’, ‘Round’, ‘Ground’!”
about 4 hours ago from web
# “That’s it! Ground! Ha! I wonder if it’ll be friends with me?”
about 4 hours ago from web

Then it hit the moon, to mixed responses, with something of a ‘plop’, rather than the ‘blam’ some people thought it would (with the more extreme declaring NASA was ‘bombing’ the moon, as if one more crate would actually make any difference given the number already created every day by meteors that still hit it.)

Penguin, on the other hand is marking this occasion in what’s been argued by some as a controversial way by publishing a sixth volume in the ever-more increasingly inaccurately named Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy trilogy on Monday (12th October). This isn’t, however, a lost Douglas Adams manuscript but an entirely new novel by internationally best selling author of the Artemis Fowl series, Eoin Colfer.

Adams final book in the Hitchhiker’s series ended (as it began) with the complete destruction of Earth. Everyone is dead, which doesn’t leave much of an opening for Eoin to start the sixth book in the series. So how does Eoin bring the eternal pessimist Arthur Dent, his alien best friend Ford Prefect and the two headed Galactic President Zaphod Beelbebrox back from the dead?

For a sneak preview and a chance to join in the anniversary celebrations yourself, London’s Southbank Centre and Penguin Books have joined forces to create Hitchcon’09: a day of celebration, spectacle and delight voyaging deep into the Hitchhiker’s Universe on Sunday 11th October.

The 30th anniversary of Hitchhiker’s and the publication of Eoin’s new book will be celebrated across the world in a whole manner of ways and in different mediums – for information, visit the official web site at

But NASA’s tweets have definitely sent the anniversary celebrations from global to intergalactic.