Of all the animals of prey, man is the only sociable one.
Every one of us preys upon his neighbour, and yet we herd together.
The Beggar's Opera: John Gay

Friday 5 October 2012

"You get that exosphere tidied up right now, or you're grounded!"

The breasts of scientifically-minded Scots everywhere will be swelling with pride this week at the news that Strathclyde University has been chosen to lead a multi-million pound international research project.

The Stardust programme will examine ways to prevent space debris colliding with satellites in orbit and, more sensationally, investigate possible methods of deflecting asteroids on a collision course for Earth.

OK, so it's not exactly Bruce Willis and a bunch of nukes, but it's exciting enough news and long overdue if you consider that Lembit Opik was calling for something of the sort back in the 1990s, before he was attracted into a rather different orbit.

Unfortunately for the PR side of the project, it is headed by one Dr Massimiliano Vasile who, despite clearly having a brain the size of a planet (and a trendy beard), has not quite mastered the art of the media-friendly soundbite. Here he is on the subject of the twin targets of asteroids and space debris:

“The two share a number of commonalities. Both are uncontrolled objects whose orbit is deeply affected by a number of gravitational and non-gravitational interactions, both have an irregular shape and an uncertain attitude motion, and both are made of inhomogeneous materials that can respond unexpectedly to a deflection action."

It all makes perfect sense, of course, but it's not going to appeal to the man on the Clapham omnibus - or fire the imagination of tomorrow's potential space engineers. And it gets worse:

“Such a significant multidisciplinary technical challenge, with real societal benefit for the future, represents a compelling topic for a training network.”

It's certainly about time someone started a bit of orbital housework; the immediate vicinity of our planetary home is starting to resemble the floor of a teenager's bedroom and it is, frankly, embarrassing (though at least the odds of a visit from the neighbours are fairly remote).

More to the point, there's enough scrap metal whizzing about up there to do serious damage to satellites or manned craft. The scientists have four years to come up with something - ideas so far include lasers, nets and, most intriguingly, a sort of motorised spider with robotic arms, as well as motors to attach to rogue asteroids - and we shall watch their work with interest.

However, should they come up with a ground-breaking discovery and want to see it on the front pages complete with user-friendly quotes, it might be as well to ensure someone takes Dr Vasile out for a long celebration lunch and leaves a more media-savvy colleague to conduct the press conference.


  1. The good Doctor on the subject of space debris could be talking about Cameron and Clegg or Miliband and Balls.

  2. You're right, Demetrius - in fact it is surprisingly apt.

    Come to think of it, that line about the 'multidisciplinary technical challenge, with real societal benefit for the future' wouldn't sound at all out of place on the podium at a party conference.

  3. despite clearly having a brain the size of a planet and a trendy beard, has not quite mastered the art of the media-friendly soundbite

    His quote [which follows] is delicious.


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