Northern Ireland and its RHI scheme controversy


RHI (Renewable Heat Incentive) schemes are something I’ve long supported. In many countries the winter heating load can represent a significant proportion of carbon emissions. Recall only 20% of the UK’s final energy consumption is electricity, while 36% is heating. So such schemes can go a long way towards reducing carbon emissions.

So its a little worrying how such a scheme is causing major political problems in Northern Ireland. First Minster Martin Mc Guinness has resigned over the crisis, in an effort to unseat DUP leader Arlene Foster (who set up the flawed scheme). Early elections have now been called. This could potentially lead to the situation where the unionists lose their majority, meaning a breakdown of powersharing. While Sinn Fein would still need the support of smaller parties to rule, it could lead to a border poll in Northern Ireland. And post-brexit, its very difficult to predict the outcome of such a poll, nor the consequences regardless of who wins.

So, how can a scheme to encourage renewable energy run that far out of control? Stories abound of people being paid to heat an empty shed. Of subsides that paid out more than the cost of the wood that they burn, cash for ash the papers call it. Of whistleblowers who warned of the dangers being silenced.

Well firstly there’s nothing unusual about an RHI subsidy that pays more than the cost of the wood. Keep in mind a householder has to pay for the boiler in the first place. Most RHI schemes, the English or Scottish systems being good examples, stipulate that a building must be brought up to a good environmental standard. If you’ve got an EPC certificate, that means the building has to meet the recommendations it stipulates. As some RHI applicants will have been using electricity to heat their home prior to switching to biomass (the RHI is primarily targeted at rural dwelling off the gas grid who often have to pay through the nose for winter heating), they might have had to have had new radiators and plumbing fitted. All of this could add up to a bill in the tens of thousands of pounds. The point of the subsidy paying out more than the cost of wood, is that over the 20 years that the subsidy lasts for, all of those costs have to be paid off. So the point of the scheme is to give a useful payback period for the householder.

Also wood prices can vary depending on who you are. If you can your own fuel from your own land then it will be cheap (it will have some cost in terms of your labour thought). If you can buy it in locally it won’t be that expensive. But if it has to be delivered over a long distance, or you can only burn certain types of fuel (smokeless zone and all that), or you’ve limited storage capacity for fuel (so more frequent deliveries) all of these factors will push up fuel costs. Thus the subsidy has to account for the fact that some will be paying a lot more than others.

It’s also been generally assumed that wood prices would go up as these schemes became more popular, but this hasn’t quite transpired. This of course contradicts one of the arguments against biomass fuel, that there’s a limited supply. Instead, necessity being the mother of invention, some enterprising types have gone off and developed new wood supplies. For example, I’ve heard of some going around and collecting all of those discarded Christmas trees and chopping them up for fuel.




Also most RHI schemes include a tier break (the Northern Ireland system doesn’t seem to include this). This means that the subsidy rate drops if the boiler is run for more than a certain period of time, typically 1,314 hrs at full boiler rating (about the average winter heating load in this part of the world). After this the subsidy paid is a lot lower, generally a good deal less (I seem to remember the old UK system used to drop from 8p/kWh to 2p/kWh). The idea of this is to encourage energy conservation. I would note that the Tories recently dropped the tier break from the domestic UK scheme, although they kept it for the non-domestic scheme. I think this was a bad idea and the reports from NI prove why. I’m all for subsidies, but not for wasting energy.

As for a shed, well if these media reports are true that’s a major flaw in the system. Out buildings are generally exempt from a domestic RHI scheme (the usual practice in Ireland and the UK is to leave these buildings unheated). They might be eligible in some regions for the non-domestic scheme, but would in any event need an EPC and be brought up to the appropriate standards and would be subject to the aforementioned tier break. If the NI scheme ignores this obvious loopholes then it is seriously flawed.

Also there are recommended indoor temperatures for buildings. I don’t have a copy of the NI building codes to hand, but I’m guessing about 12 Celsius for an outhouse in active use, probably 5 degrees for an empty building (frost protection). Now you calculate the annual heating demand for any such building on either of those two figures and the number you come up with should be fairly low. This is important because in most RHI schemes you have to declare how much heat you expect the building to use as part of the application. The sorts of figures being talked, even if we consider a shed or an outhouse as eligible (which is dubious) should have raised red flags straight away. Which does lead one to wonder what the DUP were up too….or indeed whether they were running the whole thing as a scam from day one.

Overall I do feel the media are making hay out of this one without fully understanding how these schemes work or what the objective of these schemes is. But certainly there are dangerous flaws in the Northern Irish system. Properly monitored these should have been spotted and corrected. But this is always the problem with Northern Ireland. It’s a province run by ideologues and populists of the Trump variety who simply don’t understand how a government is supposed to work. They want to simplify things, failing to understand often government red tape is complicated for a reason. Namely to keep things fair and stop some cute hoor pulling a fast one.

In short, if you think regular politicians are bad, the populist types in Stormont have been consistently worse (and to be clear, I include both Sinn Fein & the unionist in that statement). Voting for populists is like someone who complaints that their doctor isn’t very good, but rather than going to a different doctor, they instead go to some woo pedalling quack.

There’s also an ideological issue when it comes to conservatives trying to implement a renewable energy scheme. Their heart just isn’t in it. Inevitably you leave people who think renewable energy subsidies are just a scam (which is not true btw, I debunked that in prior post, although I am worried about the UK government’s CfD scheme) in charge of such a system, they’ll come up with something that is a scam.

If anything this whole sorry saga says more about the failings of NI politics and populism than it does about RHI schemes. One hopes that such schemes won’t now be cancelled as that would be throwing out the baby with the bath water.

Posted in Biomass, CHP, clean energy, economics, efficiency, energy, politics, power, renewables, subsidy, sustainability, sustainable | 1 Comment

Tories favour diesel farms over wind farms


There are no sliver bullet solutions to the UK’s current energy problems. Wind power can certainly help, its led to big drops in the UK’s carbon footprint already, but only as part of a balanced energy diet within a grander overall energy strategy. However the Tories are hostile to wind power, preferring instead foreign owned nuclear and fracking, even thought neither is in a position to deliver any significant quantities of energy for some time to come.

This raises the risk of black outs if something isn’t done to plug the gap. So what is the Tory solution to this looming energy gap? Well instead of wind farms they favour diesel farms, clusters of diesel generators in fields up and down the country, subsidised by taxpayers I might add. If you ever want an illustration of everything that’s wrong with UK energy policy this is it, where to start with this one.


Well for starters, diesel generators, while cheap to install are expensive to run. That’s why they are only ever used for generating electricity where there’s no other alternative (e.g. off grid power generation or backup generators). And with oil prices now on the way back up, those costs will start rising. They aren’t very efficient either. Yes a diesel engine in a car is more efficient than a petrol engine. But for power generation CCGT or IGCC plants have significantly greater efficiency. Potentially up to 55% efficient v’s at best 35-40% for diesel (once the BoP is accounted for).

This also means that diesel generators are far more polluting, both in terms of carbon emissions and in terms of all the other gunk that comes out of a fossil fuel plant. It beggars belief that someone can object to a wind turbine, yet look the other way to a bunch of these noisy beasts belching out carcinogenic fumes morning, noon and night. And again, if you are a UK resident, your paying for em. Carbon capture and storage is also a lot harder to implement with diesel farms than with the aforementioned gas cycle plants. So we lose that option too.

The irony is that I’ve long favoured the idea of distributed power generation, over centralised power stations. However, my preference is for CHP systems. They can run on a variety of fuels, including biomass or hydrogen (as a long term replacement for natural gas). And as we make use of the heat to meet winter heating demand (which represents a greater proportion of the UK’s energy demand than electricity remember), they are much more energy efficient, up to 85% efficiency is possible (so even running on fossil fuels, they’re 2.5 times better than diesel farms and nearly twice as efficient as a gas turbine plant).

So it would be all too easy to alter this policy slightly and achieve a similar result, just one that promotes renewable energy, cuts emissions, lower energy costs and helps keep homes warm in winter. So why is the government opting for diesel farms over CHP? Because CHP plant would be based in cities were the plebs live. You think home county toffs what money spent on keeping the great unwashed warm in winter! When instead they can earn a nice pot of cash putting a few diesels in some idle corner of their estate. Furthermore CHP might actually work (up to 40% of some European countries installed capacity is CHP), hence they’re will be no need for fracked gas or new nuclear plants. They are picking the worst possible energy option not despite it being so awful, but because it is so awful.

Any semblance of sensible energy policy has long been abandoned by the Tories. I think the UK’s post-brexit motto has to be go sell crazy some place else, we’re all stocked up here!

Posted in energy, fossil fuels, politics, power, renewables, Shale Gas, Shale oil, subsidy | 5 Comments

The populist authoritarian tribe of the demagogue


I came across a piece by the Guardian encouraging its readers to break out of their bubbles and go read the views of those on distinctly republican websites, such as Reason or the American Conservative. While I appreciate the intent, the fact is there’s not much point. Regular readers of this blog will probably notice I occasionally reference these websites myself. The problem is that conservative voters don’t believe in conservatism anymore, Trump proves that.


One could characterise republicanism as founded on four pillars – religious conservatism, a belief in small government, fiscal conservatism and strong on security. Trump breaks all of these rules. He’s a thrice married sex feint who thinks married women are fair game, fantasises about his own daughter and may have raped multiple women (or so they allege). There’s a big question mark over his religious beliefs, he is certainly not a…

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What worries me about UK energy policy


Figure 1: Thanks to the roaring Forties South Australia is installing increasing amounts of wind energy [Source:, ND]

There was a serious black out incident in South Australia last month due to high winds. Inevitably the anti-wind farm brigade were quick to blame wind farms and inevitably the media (who don’t know any better) were soon parrotting these claims. Is any of this true? No, not in the least. South Australia has seen a significant rise in renewables, in particular wind power over the last few years. They are now supplying 27% of the state’s electricity. However the fact is that the wind farms stayed up and running through the high winds and that it was the collapse of several powerlines that actually caused the black outs.


Figure 2: Wind power has at times met a significant proportion of SA’s electricity demand []Source: The covnversation, 2015]

This is what worries me about UK energy policy. On the one hand there would be a silver lining to any possible power cut, as it would allow experts like me to rub it in the government’s face how they’d screwed up royal by failing to adopt a long term energy plan. I mean one of the first things Theresa May did in office was to close down the DECC! The UK should be prioritising energy efficiency in the first instance along side a strong push to roll out as much renewable energy as we can. Other countries have shown the way. At the same time there’s a need to build in more energy storage and distributed on demand generation (i.e. more CHP, ideally biomass powered at the expense of large fossil fuel power stations) to reinforce the grid against any possible interruptions to supply. However my fear is that the tabloids will inevitably blame wind energy and renewables, regardless of the evidence to the contrary.

And it almost happened a few years ago. In the middle of a powerful storm in October 2013, several power lines came down which connected one of the UK’s nuclear plants to the grid. This forced the plant’s two reactors offline. To make matters worse another nuclear station was also offline for repairs (this is the problem with the UK’s ageing fleet, they are much more fault prone) so the UK suddenly was left with a short fall of several GW’s of power. Fortunately, there was enough spare capacity between gas , hydroelectric and wind power to plug the gap. Although a number of the UK’s wind farms did have to derate as the winds peaked (although this didn’t happen to all of them and not all at the same time), given the high winds the UK’s wind turbines were doing quite well through that night.


Figure 3: UK grid mix during the St Jude’s day storm [Source:, 2013]

However, the headlines in the newspapers next day wasn’t “wind & hydro power helps saves the UK from nuclear power black out”. Instead they focused on how one small wind turbine (the sort which a farmer might use to go off grid, not the big multi megawatt units) had fallen down in the high winds. They focused on how some of the wind farms went down for an hour or two (again not all of them and not all at the same time). Very few even mentioned the fact that a nuclear plant had gone offline and indeed was still offline a week later. Fewer still mentioned the reason why it was shut down (nuclear powerplants need electricity from the grid to power cooling pumps and control systems, they are forced to shut down and switch to backup generators if there is any interruption to their power supply, Fukushima was caused by the failure of those generators due to a Tsunami).

My fear is that regardless of the facts (we after all in the post-truth era), if there is any sort of a power cut in the UK, instead of accepting they need to change policy, instead the Tories will use it as a battering ram to implement the changes they want. They’ll probably try to stop power companies installing wind farms, ban solar panels, etc.. Keeping in mind there’s still some construction ongoing despite the subsidy cuts because energy companies see wind energy as a hedge against future high gas prices. They’ll throw yet more money at the nuclear lobby and shale gas drillers. And of course they’ll renege on the Paris climate treaty. Will this solve anything? Of course not, Hinkley C has taken ten years to plan and will take at least another ten to build (assuming its not delayed again) and produce some of the most heavily subsidized and expensive electricity in UK history. How in blue blazes will more of them solve a power shortage this winter or the next?

So there is a need to confront this reality in advance, the UK energy policy is a recipe for disaster. It is going to lead to less reliable and more expensive energy in future. It is going to make meeting the obligations placed on the country by the Paris accords impossible. This is a known fact, it has been pointed out to the government on numerous occasions. If there’s a power cut this winter, or anytime over the next few winters, it is the not the consequence of adding more renewables to the grid (not sure if the Tories have noticed but renewables “generate” energy, how can having more of something that generates power cause power cuts?), but the failure of the government to come up with a coherent policy, as well as their constant pandering to the climate denial brigade.

Posted in clean energy, climate change, efficiency, energy, Global warming denial, politics, power, renewables, sustainability, sustainable | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments

The case for space – Part 3: Martian delusions


Figure 1: Mars One, serious vision or fantasy….or scam? [Source: Mars One, 2014]

I previously discussed the idea of colonising space as a possible solution to climate change and a future resource crunch. I think the conclusion would be that its not really a feasible solution. Yes, I have no doubt space exploration (as opposed to colonisation) will continue and I would argue that any money spent on space science is money well spent. But migrating large numbers of people off the planet, or start to mine other worlds for their resources just isn’t an economically feasible or practical proposal. It is therefore worthwhile looking at some of the proposals for colonisation doing the rounds on the internet, most notably Mars One, as well the proposed missions from the Mars Society and Elon Musk.

Mars One

The central theme of Mars One is “Mars to stay”. They propose a one way mission to Mars, with no immediate return option. There is perhaps an immediate fallacy in this plan – that a one way trip will be cheaper and easier. Actually, the opposite is likely to be true. Think about it, if you have no line of retreat, you need to build more redundancy into all of your hardware. You’ll need to stockpile spares in case something breaks down (a two way mission can simply abort and return to earth, a one way crew lose this option, as it will take months to get replacement parts out, spares will have to be stockpiled). If you’re only planning to send say 4 astronauts to Mars for thirty days, you can get away with a smallish lander. If they are going to be living there for the rest of their lives, it will need to be physically bigger, you’ll need more than one to handle a larger crew (there’s a minimum number of people you’d need for a permanent colony to work, likely at least 20).

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Figure 2: Mars One in a nutshell [Source: MIT (2015), via]


Figure 3: Mars One compared to Apollo [Source: MIT (2015), via]

Given the impossibility of maintaining any such colony without resupply (as I discussed in a prior post), they will also likely need resupply from earth. So rather than sending one team of astronauts to Mars, were launching multiple cargo ships there on a regular basis. This will very quickly start to stack up in the cost department. And there’s all sorts of hardware that they’ll need that has never been developed, nor flight tested. Even simply landing on Mars with their proposed lander would present all sorts of challenges.


Figure 4: Mars one cargo requirements. Note the growing percentage of ECLSS (life support) spare parts [MIT, 2014 via]

Now nobody’s saying its impossible, its just there’s a whole bunch of development costs they’d need to go through before they got to the stage of working hardware….which would presumably have to be flight tested multiple times to prove it can work, before a human crew is sent out. Add up the costs of this and suddenly the costs of a Mars One proposed mission start to balloon to levels that make NASA’s proposal’s look cheap.

The wrong stuff

All of this is not helped by Mars One’s frankly bizarre proposals for crew selection. They have relied on various individuals who’ve applied over the internet. Their shortlist includes in its top ten or so, a Libertarian bitcoin bug, a motivational guru and a fifty year old Sushi chef. Not exactly the right stuff! They also have an insane system whereby prospective astronauts can bump themselves up the rankings by buying sweatshirts and other merchandise. When perhaps they should be ranking them on the basis of technical knowledge, skills and experience (which is more important, being able to cut sushi on a planet with no fish….or being able to steer a spacecraft down to a safe landing?), the outcome of physiological profiles, etc.


Figure 5: Mars One crew selection [Source Outerplaces, 2015]

As anyone who as ever read up on the history of the Apollo programme should be able to tell you, it is crucial the right people are sent on such a mission. This is not a place for amateurs, space does not suffer fools. The last few minutes of Apollo 11’s descent to the Lunar surface being a case in point. As the LEM approached the moon, a whole bunch of alarms started going off and nobody knew why (it later turned out the computer had effectively crashed because it was getting too much data and couldn’t cope). Neil Armstrong about the same time recalls looking out the window and seeing they were heading for a hard landing in a boulder field. Fortunately, NASA had a kick ass crew on the case. They took manual control of the LEM, boosted away from danger and brought the LEM down to a safe controlled landing, likely with just seconds of fuel to spare.

Now Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin pulled that off because they were highly trained and experienced astronauts. They had both been intimately involved in the development of the LEM throughout its design life (Mars One seem to think they can order this sort of hardware out of an RS catalogue!). Armstrong even survived crashing a LEM training vehicle. They knew their craft inside and out. And ultimately, they had an abort option available if everything when pear shaped. Mars one will be several light minutes away from earth, meaning that either they’ll have figured it out or crashed before mission control can do anything. They will have no abort options, they’ll either crash and die…..or land safely and die later!


Furthermore, as I discussed previously it is far from proven that its possible for humans to live on Mars permanently. Long duration stays are a possibility, but permanent residence, given the radiation and low gravity they will be exposed to, is a different kettle of fish. Inevitably over a long enough time period the probability of a Mars One crew’s survival drops to zero. If they crash on landing, they’re dead. If any of their key hardware fails, they’re dead. If a key person with technical skills (e.g. the mission doctor or engineer) gets sick, he’s dead, then so is everyone else once nobody’s left to do his job. If they can’t complete a viable life support loop, they’re dead. Given they will lack a line of retreat, its a case of just rolling the dice often enough and eventually we get a TPK.

The supporters of Mars one claim they will fund it by selling TV rights of their mission. The PR generated will inspire generations. Actually the opposite is likely to be true. A Mars one mission, where the public watches the slow gradual drawn outdeaths of a team of astronauts one by one would likely be a PR disaster. And no TV studio is interested in commissioning the most expensive snuff film in history. An MIT study (the same one referenced earlier) even suggested the crew would be dead 68 days after their arrival.


All of these inconvenient facts, the lack of anyone with the appropriate technical skills on the Mars One team has led some to question if its all just a massive scam. One of the few team members with in anyway credible qualifications, quit not too long ago, citing issues he had with the ridiculous way they operated and he openly question the credibility of the whole thing

Now I’m not sure if any of this proves its a scam. There’s enough demented space cadet’s around that its possible those behind it are sincere….and a perfect proof of the Dunning–Kruger effect. However to say there’s a few holes in this proposal is to put it rather mildly. It is no surprise that nobody seems to take Mars one remotely seriously.

Mars Direct and Elon Musk

I was originally going to do a separate analysis of both the Mars Society‘s plans, notably Robert Zubrin‘s Mars Direct and Elon Musk’s more recent proposals. However, given that they are broadly similar, I though it would be sensible to combine the two. Certainly, no doubt that both of these plans are significantly more plausible than anything proposed by Mars one.


Figure 6: Mars Direct proposal: The return vehicle (left) and habitat (right) [Source: NASA spaceflight forum, 2013]

The Mars direct plan involves sending a return vehicle out to Mars fuelled with several tons of hydrogen fuel and a small mobile nuclear reactor. This would then spend a year processing the Martian atmosphere to produce a mix of methane and oxygen, sufficient to fuel the return vehicle for the journey home. Once this vehicle is ready and fuelled, a habitat is sent out along with the astronauts. Once there mission is completed, they return in the already fuelled lander. It should be noted that Mars direct is intended to support Mars exploration, as opposed to colonisation. Although given that we’ll be leaving behind plenty of hardware that could be reused by future travellers, its possible it could form a stepping stone towards colonisation.

Elon Musk’s plans are a bit more ambitious, as he’s planning to send larger numbers for longer stays, leading to eventual colonisation. A extremely large reusable booster rocket will lift either an interplanetary vehicle (or a refuelling tanker) up to orbit. This rocket will be huge, with an LEO throw capability of 300 tons (by comparison the Saturn V could only manage a puny 110 tons) and will be powered by 42 first stage engines, running on the same Methane/LOx mixture mentioned earlier. This booster will be reusable, with the first stage flying back to its pad after staging and landing right back from where it started off.


Figure 7: Elon Musk’s Mars launcher on the pad.

Once in orbit, the Interplanetary craft is fuelled with further launches (using a reusable tanker). It will then head off for Mars and land on the planet. It will then be refuelled in the same manner as discussed for Mar direct, before returning directly to earth. This offers various options in terms of staying on Mars or returning.


Figure 8: SpaceX’s proposed launch sequence [Source:, 2016]

There are a couple of immediate criticisms and questions one must immediately ask, as this space scientist discusses. However I would take a step back and mention a few more obvious practical problems.

Firstly, why fly the booster back to the launch tower? Why not fly it back and land it at some other location? Why not do parachute recovery into the ocean like NASA does with its SRB’s? After all, what if it, say, crashes into the launch tower (or the tank farm!). Already SpaceX lost a few rockets in tests due to retrofire failures or legs failing to deploy. And any accident would jeopardise the mission by paralysing the launch process. Also the rocket would need to be checked out and inspected prior to re-use. So presumably you’d land it somewhere else (on the top of a barge or crawler vehicle) take it indoors for such checks and repairs, then deploy it to the launch site. Not least because Florida (from where they propose to launch) is prone to hurricanes and storms. And speaking of which, why not move down closer to the equator, such as the ESA launch centre in French Guiana? This would be a more fuel efficient location to launch from.

As Jeff Bell recently pointed out, Elon appears to be channelling Sergei Korolev and copying his failed N1 booster. This rocket, used the same idea of clustering multiple engines around a single rocket stage, meaning you’re rolling 42 dice every time you launch and running the risk of one or two engine failures destroying the launch vehicle. With the N1 this configuration meant it proved impossible to test fire the whole assembled rocket on the ground, so they had to work things out in actual test flights…..four extremely expensive and embarrassing failures later (including one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history) and the Russian manned lunar programme was finished before it even started. Jeff Bell also discusses the extremely ambitious design of the proposed Raptor engines, which will use a staged combustion process operating at extremely high chamber pressures. Not exactly the sort of thing that would boost reliability.


Figure 8: The Russian N1 Rocket [, ND]

But I would raise a more obvious question, why use Methane/Lox for earth ascent and trans Mars Injection? Surely LH2/LOx with an Isp of 450s v’s the 360s he’ll get from his raptor engines (if they don’t blow up!), would be a better idea? His proposal incurs a massive weight penalty right from the start. In theory the only bit of the vehicle that needs to be powered by LCH4/LOx is the section of the flight where astronauts are boosted back up off Mars (or where fuel is ferried up for the transfer vehicle’s flight back to earth). This would have the additional benefit of cutting down the weight landed on Mars considerably, as we’d only be taking a small capsule up/down v’s the entire spacecraft.


And since we’re talking about it there’s a certain swiss army knife nature to this Interplanetary vehicle. It has to withstand launch on a booster from earth (carry the crew one assumes), keep the crew alive for many months on end by meeting all of their life support requirements. It has to survive re-entry through both the Martian atmosphere and the Earth atmosphere (and do both in the one mission, sitting on Mars exposed to the elements for several months prior to return to earth and doing a re-entry there). It must be capable of boosting itself off Mars and perform the Trans Mars and return injections. That’s an absurdly long list of mission requirements.

Playing around with the numbers from Musk’s proposal shows its going to need a mass fraction of at least 0.19, not far off that for an SSTO. I discussed the technical difficulties of developing such a vehicle in a prior post. But in this case Musk is lumbering his vehicle with a whole raft of additional requirements (notably several months of food and consumables has to come out of that 19% mass budget….along with any any payload and crew….and the vehicle’s empty weight as well!).

To my mind breaking the job up into three separate spacecraft, an ascent module, a transfer vehicle and a descent stage would solve a whole host of problems. Quite apart from the obvious fact that if the transfer vehicle is designed to be reusable, then if it stays in space we skip the need for another launch to send it back into earth orbit again. Indeed, I’d go further and point out that direct flights to Mars using chemical rockets are extremely fuel inefficient (meaning our space craft ends up being mostly fuel tanks, as discussed), limiting the amount of cargo the ship can carry. There are alternative ways of getting there with a lower fuel burn, but they increase the time in space and thus exposure to radiation.

Using alternatives to chemical rockets (nuclear rockets, M2P2, solar thermal rockets, etc.) would however speed things up considerably and also have the advantage of cutting the fuel requirements down yet further (Isp’s of 900s or higher, twice that of LH2/LOx, at least three times better than what Musk is proposing).


Now you may say, am I not forgetting something, we don’t have nuclear engines, nor M2P2 (nor photon torpedoes!), so not a realistic proposal? Yes, but both Mars Direct and Elon Musk’s Mars plan also involve a an unproven element – that nuclear reactor to process the Martian atmosphere and create fuel. Then store that fuel in a cryogenic liquefied state for over a year on the surface of Mars. Has anyone built such a thing? How sure our we about Zubrin’s weight calculations? Has anyone built such a processing plant and sent it to Mars to check the concept will work? Yes the basic theory is sound on paper, but theory and practice are two different things. If I were Elon Musk I’d quit rocket and engine development and send a boiler plate test article to Mars ASAP and test the basic concept. If its not feasible he’ll be building in a massive weight penalty right from the start. To the point where this could be a potential show stopper.

This problem perhaps hints at a wider fundamental problem with both Musk and Mars Direct. It explains why NASA estimates for the cost of a Mars mission come in at hundreds of billions, while Musk/Zubrin/Mars One come in at a price of tens of Billions (or less!). To draw an analogy from mountaineering, NASA propose to climb the Martian mountain the same way they did with the Moon, what would sometimes be called the Mallory method in mountaineering circles. Here we lay siege” to the mountain. A large base camp is established (e.g. the NASA development centres) from where we make increasingly ambitious forays up the mountain. Based on the experience of these missions we eventually send a team of suitably equipped, acclimatised, experienced and well supported climbers, up to a high camp, from where they make an attempt on the summit.

By contrast what Zubrin and Musk propose is to climb the Martian mountain alpine style. This means taking the minimum of gear and climbing the mountain in one continuous push. This is a much more physically arduous task to perform, it requires a higher level of technical skill and it is much more risky (largely because your lines of retreat are limited if something goes wrong). Keep in mind there are several mountains worldwide that have never been climbed alpine style (and it would be suicidally stupid to even try!). By contrast the best analogy I can think of for Mars One is the fate (and cautionary tale) of Maurice Wilson, an eccentric amateur who tried to climb Everest unsupported in the 1920’s and ultimately descended into madness and died on the mountain.

But I digress, the bottom line is that to maximise ones chance of success on Mars, it would be sensible to conduct a serious of shakedown cruises and dress rehearsals first, much as happened during Apollo. Missions to the moon first, an extended space soak (e.g. to an asteroid, Mars or Venus flyby’s), test runs of the descent vehicle in the upper earth atmosphere (or on the moon) would gradually build up to the main event. Of course this would take longer and cost a lot more, but it would make the chances of success significantly higher. The reason why Aldrin and Armstrong didn’t pull the abort lever during those last few minutes prior to landing is because they had confidence in what they were doing. Confidence built up on the past missions they and their colleagues had performed.

Space central planning

Also there’s the obvious question why Mars? Musk say’s its in case some disaster renders earth uninhabitable. Well even any of the disasters he lists would still make the earth a more hospitable place to live than Mars. And there’s a whole host of issues I raised previously about human habitation of space which we’ve not looked into. But suffice to say there’s more than a few holes in this plan.

Perhaps the key myth we need to debunk here is the notion that you can build a space colonisation program without involving the government. It doesn’t help that many space cadets are rabid libertarians who see it as their way of breaking free from the shackles of government…..only some of them seem to think that said big government and its NASA’s resources and budget should now be turned over to Elon Musk. Ah, no! When did we vote to end democracy?

NASA I’m quite sure would like to work with anyone on Mars, they’ve incorporated parts of Robert Zubrin’s plans into their own mission designs, but their experts may decide to do things differently. They may want to go away and do some testing first. Almost certainly I suspect they’ll opt for their own SLS system for earth launch as well as stretch out the launch schedule, shrink the size and complexity of the main spacecraft (yet still bulk up the budget for its development) and generally downside the ambitions. They may offer elements of any future contracts to SpaceX (one assumes a competitive bidding process will be put in place), they made decide to go with someone else. The point is they know what they are doing, we’d be fools to ignore them.

But space cadets seem to want to skip this important process of technical review and democratic discussion. Going to Mars would be a big decision, not least because of the costs involved. That decision needs to be made in a democratic way, particularly if you are looking to taxpayers to bankroll it. Personally, I’d have no objection to a crewed Mars mission, so long as it was justified by well supported proposal of potential research outputs and it wasn’t overly expensive and its goals and objectives were realistic and achievable. However, there are plenty of people who won’t be willing to do so. And Musk and Mars one are proposing something more along the lines of colonisation of Mars and a blank cheque to go with that. Without the necessary justification and democratic mandate it would be insane to even try such a thing.

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Now everyone’s been Trumped



So its Trump, how can 60 million people be that dumb! Many are trying to put the spin on it, that it was working class Americans in rust belt states fed up with how they are treated in Washington that swung the election. Well no, the polling data (both before and after the election) shows the vast majority of Trump voters are middle class or upper class whites who generally have a better than average income. The majority of low income whites still voted for Hillary. Certainly some more of them than did vote for Trump than would normally be expected in an election, but in theory this was cancelled out (to some degree) by an increased level of turn out and voting for Hillary by ethnic minority voters.

Indeed its worth remembering that she carried the popular vote, Trump carried the key swing states by only a…

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Bigoted Britain



One of the more unsavoury aspects of the brexit vote is how the bigot brigade now feel they can throw their weight about. There’s been a worrying rise in racist and xenophobic incidents, up 14% nationally, but as high as 70% higher in some hot spots. A number of foreigner visitors (some only here as tourists) have reported all manner of stories of random abuse being shouted at them, eggs thrown at them, shop windows smashed or being attacked in a public park. Even Lily Allen has reported how she had abuse shouted at her by a cab driver who refused to accept her fare (she’d said something earlier in the week about how the UK should take in more refugees). And this is on the mild side. We have of course the recent murder of a Polish man (not being investigated as a hate crime) and of course…

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