Archive for November, 2005

European Mars Society Conference 2005

November 12, 2005

Mars Society
This years European Mars Conference was supposed to be held in Madrid, but was moved to Swindon as the initial location wasn’t deemed to be glamourous enough. It was held at Alexandra House conference centre which was a bad move. One letdown was the Internet access; the demographic of this conference is fairly tech-savvy, and as such the expensive WiFi access was a big problem. The hotel charges £5 for an hour, £8 for 2, or £15 for 24 hours. That has to be the worst hotel WiFi ever, with 24 hours costing the same as a whole month of my home broadband package. The only other time I have experienced something like this was a conference at Microsoft in Reading, where there was no WiFi at all! As well as the disappointing lack of cheap or free Internet access there was a complete lack of mobile phone reception, apart from a small area outside the front door, where coincidentally the wind and rain was focused. Not to be negative, just that these two things combined are quite a big issue for a geek. Anyway, griping over, the lectures were enough to make up for it:

Robert Zubrin: Getting to Mars

Robert is the founder of the Mars Society, and today was giving a lecture about the current state of the space program, and what needs to be done in order to get to Mars. The current state of the program was assessed politically, financially, and logistically, and it was fascinating to hear how politics can affect something such as the exploration of mars. It brought to light the fact that it’s not really a technical problem to get there, although there is obviously a huge amount of engineering to be done, but that the political and funding issues are the main hurdle.

Stephen Baxter: Mars Polar Base Study

Stephen is bith a scientist and science fiction author, and gave an interesting lecture about the possibility of landing on the Mars polar cap. The plan so far includes staying 2 Mars years in order to drill the ice and discover something of the meteorological past of the planet. They are currently researching this possibility, and working in the Arctic.

Collin Pillinger, PSSRI: The Robotic Exploration of Mars

Colin Pillinger has been somewhat of a public spokesman for UK interest in the space industry, since his involvement in Beagle 2 saw him regularly placed on the news. Since the failure of Beagle 2 he has been trying to raise funding for a second attempt. He was the first ever speaker, before the Mars Society had even been formed back in 1998, and he has also recently won the Arthur C. Clarke award. He also talked about the political problems associated with raising money for a venture like this, and the public relations issues. He clearly learned a lot about PR whilst in the media spotlight, and realises that public opinion is a major driving force in securing money, but that a mission like this is also vital for recruiting the next generation of scientists. Another major issue was reducing risk on Beagle 3, including the possibility of using more than one lander, and changing the landing technique from the bouncing ball (where the lander bounced 900 feet into the air on the first bounce) to a more controlled parachute landing with a nose cone. He also went on to explain the benefit of projects like this in creating jobs and expertise, and also in the spin-offs it produces. The mass spectrometer used in Beagle 2 is now being developed to have uses in security and medecine and may prove to be an invaluable tool in both.

IEE Lecture – Lord Sainsbury, “The Role of The Minister for Science and Innovation in the Knowledge Economy”

November 5, 2005

Lord Sainsbury
This week I attended an Institute of Electrical Engineers prestige lecture given by Lord Sainsbury, the present Minister for Science and Innovation, entitled “The Role of The Minister for Science and Innovation in the Knowledge Economy”.

The talk was essentially about the duties of the position, and how he sees the future of science in the UK. It was insightful to see the way that policies that affect universities and hi-tech companies are decided upon, and to see the man that makes those decisions. Lord Sutton made an interesting point about the knowledge economy; 50 years ago a high percentage of the cost of a product was composed of material and labour, as much as 80%. But now it is common for a product price to be only 20% made up by material and labour costs. This change is due to the increased amount of intelectual property and research and develpment costs. One question was asked which provoked a response in him that reassured me of something that I have worried about before; when asked whether universities are being focused more upon profitable science than research for the sake of curiosity and furthering knowledge he replied that this should always be a part of science in the UK. He felt that just because some science didn’t give birth to a start-up it was no less important, and that study for the sake of research, and maintaining universities as somewhere where knowledge is furthered not for profit but for curiosity will remain.