Books written by Ray Sullivan

Saturday, 2 March 2013

In Space ... Nobody Can Hear You Waste Money

A satellite designed and built in the UK has just been launched on behalf of India.  As usual on these satellites it is crammed full of ingenious experiments designed to unravel the mysteries of modern life.  For example, there are tow experiments designed to test the concept of jet propulsion which, oddly, was an integral part of the process that got the satellite up there in the first place.  To be fair, and quite a bit less cynical, both experiments utilise esoteric materials and methods, but the concept is jet propulsion.

But the real aim of the satellite is to test the capability of consumer products to be used in high tech enviroments.  I've mentioned in earlier blogs about the use of iPads and Kindles in commercial aircraft to provide access to manuals.  I've also expressed a bit of caution over the use of these devices because my aeronautical engineering background has conditioned me to the the fact that the over-inflated costs associated with proving airworthiness of individual components isn't entirely without basis.  In fact, due to the lack of a hard shoulder at 50,000 feet, ensuring that components are dependable under duress is quite important,  especially if you are a passenger.  So to use commercially available consumer products without proving their reliability is a risky business unless the application is not safety critical.  I would suggest that access to instructions when the alarms are sounding and the systems are failing is probably safety critical.  Not the time to find out that the Kindle has run out of juice or the iPad has decided to upgrade to iOS 7.

The satellite experiment involves an android phone - not an Apple, note, this isn't rocket science and the cost of an iPhone over the price tag of a satellite and launch vehicle probably soaked up most of the budget anyway.  The primary aim of the experiment is to see if the phone - a Nexus by the way - can control the satellite.  Presumably navigation will be by Google Earth - another good reason to avoid using an Apple - but the main purpose will be controlling the various experiments on the satellite such as measuring the magnetic field around the phone.  Possibly this will lead to an improvement in mobile phone technology for all of us over time - I for one am constantly irritated by the way the Earth's magnetic field interferes with my texting.

But there is one experiment that really raises my eyebrow (just the one, Roger Moore isn't the only Brit who can control single eyebrows, you know).  We must be reaching the point in space exploration where, actually, we have found out all we need to know.  Because they have developed an app that plays back pre-recorded screams and attempts to 'hear' them using the phone's microphone in order to put to bed the age-old controversy that started with the tag line in Alien 'in space, nobody can hear you scream.'  Relying only on mathematics and physics I'm quite comfortable with that tag-line, especially as I'm unlikely to ever need to  prove it one way or the other.  And I'm not generally that easily satisfied with movie related science - I've just watched, and enjoyed in a devil may care way, the latest Die Hard movie which plays fast and loose with science fact.  I'm not going to spoil the film for those of you waiting to watch it but I'd just like to point out, for the record, that the Chernobyl reactor that ran away (and is still burning nicely, thank you) is encased in many feet of concrete so walking into it isn't likely.  Nor is there a magic gas that suppresses the effects of radiation that allows workers to walk around without any protection - if there was, I doubt Chernobyl would be a problem to anyone right now.  And reducing the amount of fissionable material is absolutely the opposite to why the chain reaction went haywire.  But hey-ho, I digress again.

I'm sure Alien, and virtually every other Sci Fi movie, book, short story and cartoon (and I freely include my own SciFi books in this list) contains convenient 'facts' that aren't actually true, but the scream in space issue is probalby not one of them and hardly worth blasting an otherwise useful phone into space.  I'd have tried checking for cell phone connection from space as that is likely to be the most useful facility given the advent of space tourism about to kick off.  'Hello, I'm in space...'

I hope it all works, even the alien scream bit, but I also hope that the sponsors of the experiments don't take any success to mean that they can start using commercially available consumer devices to control space vehicles that fly over my house.  Just because it didn't fail doesn't mean it will work every time, or at least conform to standard measures of reliability for the aerospace industry.  For that, I'm afraid they will need to embark on proper levels of assurance testing.

And believe me, in aeronautical engineering, everybody can hear the accountants scream.


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