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Friday, June 18, 2010


Another rant on the actions of the imbeciles who run Scotland & the LudDims. Again it relates to a recent news item
On June 13th Hayabusa [falcon] streaked through the night sky of southern Australia to deliver to Earth what researchers hope will be the first sample of rock collected from the surface of an asteroid.

As the picture suggests, most of the craft burned up on re-entry. But a small part, protected by a heat shield made of carbon-phenolic resin, survived and landed in the desert near Woomera. This capsule, it is hoped, will contain material from Itokawa, a half-kilometre-long asteroid whose orbit crosses the Earth’s.

One up, then, to JAXA, Japan’s space agency. Indeed, two up, because on June 10th it successfully deployed Ikaros, a solar sail attached to a small satellite in orbit round the Earth.

In the short term, the mission to Itokawa was the more spectacular of the two. It was dogged by bad luck, ranging from solar flares to boulder-strewn landing fields, and returned to Earth three years late. But return it did, having been nursed through its traumas by a patient ground team at JAXA’s mission-control centre in Tsukuba.

In the long term, though, Ikaros may be the more important mission. Solar sails are not the quickest way to travel through space, but they are cheap.
The Japanese rocket lifted off in May 2003 & the mission has been costed at $170 million (say £110 million).

In 2002 in response to a LibDem request for ideas for an innovative (& relatively inexpensive) policy idea which would make a newsworthy debate at the Scottish conference, I proposed we call for Scotland to put up a £20 million X-Prize for the first probe to soft land on an asteroid beyond the orbit of Mars. Rather conservatively I suggested the prize last till 2050 amortising it to a very small annual cost, or of course, no cost whatsoever if it didn't work.

The party derisively rejected even discussing the idea on the grounds, so far as I could find, that it was "utter bilge. I don't think anybody will ever put up enough money to do such a thing. . . . all rather rot." To be fair no other British party has subsequently shown any more interest.

The £20 million I proposed awarding is much less than the £110 m the Japanese have spent but even so is, with hindsight, rather more than required.

Firstly because the Japanese mission, which involved returning a sample, is very much more complex & expensive than simply making the outward journey, as made clear here, though my initial proposal that it have to be an asteroid beyond the orbit of Mars (ie proving we can reach most of the asteroid belt) does bring in some extra difficulty as well as make it a more important achievement.

Secondly the point about X-Prizes is that they should not cover the entire cost of a project, certainly not at government work rates, but provide the seed corn to support something which pushes the technological envelope in ways that do have major economic spin offs but do not have sufficient guarantee of a large enough immediate return to first investors. It is difficult to give an exact figure of what proportion of total cost should be covered by a prize, though 1/3rd looks like the maximum which would fit the description. The only firm figure I can give is the one produced by the US army "For less than $10 million in prize money and expenses [specifically $3 million in prizes], the Department of Defense has created new technology that would have otherwise cost more than $100 million, and taken a lot longer to perfect." That would imply that Scotland could have attracted at least £660 million of spending for a £20 million prize, putting Scotland, alone, well ahead in competition with Japan. Of course if the Luddites had been right & nothing had come of it there would have been no cost either but this Japanese example shows that it is technologically feasible & very probably would have worked.

The incompetent blithering idiots running Scotland have wasted £41.3 marching up & down with their particular economically insane pork barrel project nominally to build a rail link to Glasgow Airport. For our £41.3 million they have produced absolutely nothing. Had they been willing to listen for slightly less they could have had both the rail link they said they wanted, about £600 million of investment & Scotland in a world leading position in an industry that is growing at 10% annually & about to change rather more than just the world.

This & yesterday's are 2 of my earliest proposals. I look froward to the continuing experience of telling those in charge "I told you so".

On the other hand, while I would like my own country's government to show a little commitment to progress there are a lot of other countries, or provinces or US states, which may do what our numptocracy would not.

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