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  • Writer's pictureMatt Russell

#192 - Bangs, UK Space, Chirality and Habitability

This week we discuss very loud bangs back in '69, some EU/ESA space projects where Brexit may be causing the UK some real problems, why life became right-handed and the chances of life on a Trappist-1 exoplanet just got more likely, no wait less likely?

It's like trying to describe what you feel when you're standing on the rim of the Grand Canyon or remembering your first love or the birth of your child. You have to be there to really know what it's like.

Happy Birthday: Jack Schmitt: or Harrison Hagan Schmitt (born July 3, 1935) is a geologist, retired NASA astronaut, university professor, former U.S. senator from New Mexico.

The twelfth and second-youngest person to set foot on the Moon and the second-to-last person to step off of the Moon (Eugene Cernan was last of course). Schmitt also remains the only professional scientist to have flown beyond low Earth orbit


Anniversary of the tenth biggest (non-nuclear) explosion in all history!!! With the explosive power of 1kt of TNT or 4TJ of energy released!! 3rd July 1969 The Russians were testing what would be their equivalent of an Apollo 8 mission.

The massive N1 Rocket took off from Baikonur Cosmodrome Site 110, everything for a short while seemed fine, all the 30 NK-15 firing ...but it really wasn’t fine, A turbopump had gone terribly wrong, and all of a sudden 29 engines shut down. One Engine, inexplicably, remained running and the Rocket hung in the air momentarily listing over, before falling to the ground!!!

Boom an understatement, totally destroying the launch pad and smashing all the windows at the complex, and throwing debris at least 6 miles away, a raging fireball lit up the night skies and could be seen from at least 22 miles away.

Incredibly this wasn’t actually the worst-case scenario. Only the fuel in the first stage had supplied the energy and 80% of the fuel load had remained undetonated. If the RP-1 and LOX had mixed it would have formed a gel and the explosion would have been ridiculously big. When launch crews went outside 30 minutes later it was still raining RP-1 rocket fuel. The launch escape tower had worked and had taken the payload the Zond Moon capsule 1.2 miles away.

This was the second attempt of the N1 and the damage was so bad there was no reattempt for another 18months and after 2 more failures, the Russians gave up and in that moment gave up the space race, and conceded that the US was indeed THE superpower. A 20 year old Putin was probably thinking, how can I leverage social media to destroy the west muhaha.


Norman Earl Thagard (born July 3, 1943) was celebrating his 26th birthday completely unaware of the change of world order and completely unaware that he would be the first American on board a Russian rocket, considered the first American cosmonaut. He did on this on March 14, 1995, in the Soyuz TM-21 spacecraft for the Russian Mir-18 mission


The OneWeb saga.

So at the start of lockdown, OneWeb went into bankruptcy protection after launching 74 of it’s planned 648 satellites to provide worldwide internet coverage.

Since then it has been waiting for bids to buyout or fund the company. Reports are that Chinese firms have shown interest, as has Eutelsat, and Telsat, probably Amazon and most intriguingly the UK Government, that has apparently put in a £500m bid to take a 20% share as part of a wider consortium of companies (private equity firm Unbound and Indian entrepreneur Shravin Bharti Mittal, whose dad already is heavily invested).

But why on earth have they done this? OneWeb is nominally headquartered in London but its Sats are built in the US with the help of Paris based Airbus.

But the bizarre and controversial reason is that Since the UK has started Brexit we have been locked out to the military-grade GPS supplied by the Gallileo system that the UK helped to build and finance, OneWeb might provide a solution. Tech experts have been extremely dubious about this, citing the orbit heights and the satellite size as being incompatible with a GPS style retrofit.

As always it’s hard to separate the continued Brexit remoaning and actual facts though. If it could be done, then the TAX payer would save on the proposed £5 Billion UK galileo replacement. The US, however, might block foreign ownership of US assets, due to security concerns. Britain’s membership of the “Five Eyes” intelligence community may help here, although even this is in doubt if we go down the Huawei 5G route, so might mean that the regulators could wave the sale through.

The bidding is as we speak, so by the time this Podcast comes out more will be clear.

If the UK Government does end up with this asset it could be great news, it’s also a huge tech gamble, and let's face it governments have an awful track record of tech investments, but it’s all about the partners in this bid I think.

Brexit and ESA

What is clearer cut is the damaging effect that incomplete Brexit negotiations are having on the UK space industry. What was a pretty disastrous day for UK space the next round of Copernicus satellite building all went to other ESA states and NONE to the UK except the crumbs? Germany the big winner, who have basically bought leadership by putting large amounts of investment into ESA.

Long story short, Copernicus is the ESA earth observation program and these new contracts were for 6 six new satellites as part of the constellation, the satellites are called sentinels.

But the UK is still part of ESA, and still paying huge sums of money in so what gives. Well like Galileo it’s actually an EU programme managed by ESA, so at EU level the UK can’t actually get the sat build contracts, without the finishing of another “third country agreement” that is part of Brexit negotiations. The UK has lost out because the continental industry partners are worried that the UK may be forced to pull out if negotiations go south and create complicated havoc.

This is a nightmare for the UK Space Agency because they have put in more money than they are getting out of the programme, although there are the crumbs of the contracts that may go the UKs way as constellation cancellation. "It's disappointing that we don't have a leadership role, but there is key instrument work in there from Airbus UK and TAS UK; Teledyne and the National Physical Laboratory will also be doing noble work. So, we're pleased about that; it's not all bad news." Nick Shave the new chair of trade body UKSpace.

The UK reduced the money it put on the table back in November from €280 to €170 million, perhaps ths would have guaranteed at least one of the Sentinels going the UK’s way, but the two likely candidates went to Spain and Italy

There is a slight chicken and egg situation here too, if you fall out of the programme then you might not think the heavy investment to stay in is worth it, but then you are completely excluded and this would be the loss of the earth sensing capability the UK has and an extremely complicated multi-country project that would be foolish not to be a part of.


Evryscope and K2 Constraints on TRAPPIST-1 Superflare Occurrence and Planetary Habitability

Amy L. Glazier et al

The scopes

The Evryscope looks like a fly's eye and is basically 24 telescopes strapped together in a fibreglass dome. Actually more like 24 kick ass DSLRs with awesome South Korean Lenses on uber CCD sensors, making it one of the only and first full-sky gigapixel-scale telescope. K2 is the Kepler Satellite planet hunter telescope second light phase of existence, where despite being on its last legs has been used successfully for a new mission.

Using these scopes astronomers led by Amy Glazier have been looking more closely at the solar flares of the Trappist-1 system. Just to recap, Trappist-1 is very exciting because it is an exosolar system with several earth-sized planets that are at the right orbit to have liquid water on the surface. In the future, they may be the home of the first human exoplanet settlers

What have they found? Well there is good news and bad news

Good News:

The superflare rate of the host star, an ultracool dwarf, angry but small, is insufficient to deplete the atmosphere of the planets that orbit. Yay ...good news for life

Bad News;

It’s also insufficient to supply the necessary UV radiation to the planet's surface to power prebiotic chemistry. insufficient to catalyze chemical pathways thought to lead to RNA synthesis. The relevant UV-B band is orders of magnitude less for any TRAPPIST-1 planet than has been experienced by Earth at any time in its history. Boo ...bad news for life.


Following on from last week story of the mass gap, an eagle-eyed spodcat spotted this one

The possible disappearance of a massive star in the low metallicity

galaxy PHL 293B

Andrew P. Allan

PHL 293B Image credit: L. Calçada / ESO

Basically a very bright and big blue star (massive luminous blue variable (LBV) star) observed back in 2011 had disappeared when they looked again in 2019, leading to 2 explanations, that it had calmed down to a dimmer star and is now obscured by dust or it collapsed directly into a black hole without going supernova. Might it have left a black hole in the mass gap?

The Chiral Puzzle of Life

Noemie Globus and Roger D. Blandford


Life on earth has made a choice to be righthanded. By this I actually mean chirality. A left-handed glove is the same as a right-handed glove in the mirror but they are indeed different nevertheless. DNA or RNA is the same the helix can wind to the left or to the right, but would look the same in the mirror. Yet all life on earth it spirals to the right.

Most people have speculated this is a random choice, it just so happened that when life got going it was made from the right-handed stuff and that’s it. But this paper suggest a more cosmic origin. Something that the great Luois Pasteur seems to have suggested “This is one of the links between life on Earth and the cosmos,” back in 1860. This Chirality is actually very dangerous too. When you artificially make drugs for example you could make a mixture of the two chiral modes of the chemical, one that works and one with side effects, this was the case for Thalidomide, that occurs naturally in the human body but when introduced artificially caused terrible birth defects. You theoretically could make food that would be identical to normal food but with no nutritional value.

But is it indeed random? This paper suggests that it is not!! And may even be Universal!

It is proposed that this choice was made, causally, by cosmic rays, which are known to play a major role in mutagenesis.

Magnetically polarized cosmic rays that dominate at ground level today can impose a small, but persistent, chiral bias in the rate at which they induce structural changes in simple, chiral monomers that are the building blocks of biopolymers.

A much larger effect may be present with helical biopolymers, like those progenitors of RNA and DNA. This bias could lead to the emergence of a single, chiral life form over an evolutionary timescale.

But why do Cosmic rays have this bias? Well as the cosmic rays coming from supernova explosions etc and the utter stupendous violence of Outerspace, they slam into mother Earth's protective atmospheric blanket (thank you Earth) and smash into tiny pieces, these tiny pieces, called pions then decay into electrons and muons. But the Pions are only held together by the weak force, which is the only known force to have asymmetry, it’s not the same in the mirror!

This bizarre fact of the laws of nature means that as the electrons spiral down to the ground they are creating a slight bias in magnetic fields that are able to influence the chirality of the simple building blocks of life!!!

How? well, these slightly biased pions were ever-so-slightly more likely to knock an electron loose from a righthanded helix than from a lefthanded one, causing mutagenesis, a pathway for evolution in other words. With no evolution you are static and stasis is death. The calculated effect is absolutely tiny changing the chance of these events in the order of millionths of a per cent, but as we know evolution happens over crazy long time periods.

If this mechanism dominates, then the handedness of living systems should be universal. Experiments are proposed to assess the efficacy of this process such as blasting bacteria with cosmic type rays, and seeing if it makes a difference. Also intriguing is that asteroids have shown to have pre-organics that have chirality bias, probably caused by the polarization of light.

The fact that cosmic rays can destroy life but also nudge it in the right direction, probably shows just how special earth is that it is set up just right, the Rare Earth hypothesis.

Just the right place in the solar system, galaxy, right chemical makeup, right atmosphere, the right chance events, the moon washing chemicals around, the list is endless, we live on a beautiful and maybe totally unique and certainly insanely rare world.

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