Saturday, July 1, 2017

A Rocket Port In Barbados Manned By Amateur Astronomers? A Pipedream For PR

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Me, standing next to the BAS' new 16 in. Cassegrain telescope in May, 2014. Up to now I don't believe members have done a thing with it. And now they want to fire rockets into "mid space"?

As we read the headline in The Barbados Nation of May 4 we could scarcely believe our eyes:

"Bajan Scientists Plan To Launch 'Space Mission'"

The article claimed the "Harry Bayley Observatory -based group" (The Barbados Astronomical Society) is no longer content to observe the objects in the sky,  it now plans to launch a "probe" into the "mid level atmosphere".


As I paused to ask Janice:

"Fire rockets into space? What the hell have they been doing with their existing equipment? Anything?"

Recall three years ago in May we visited the Harry Bayley Observatory and found the BAS had just been the recipient of  a million dollar BDS ($500,000 U.S.) grant from the British-based Sfumato Foundation, to entirely upgrade and refurbish the building as well as purchase a new, fully computerized Meade 16" Cassegrain telescope (the largest of its type in the eastern Caribbean) as well as a NASA-designed Malin camera and a dedicated solar telescope for H-alpha observations.

In addition they reaped a computerized system allowing any one of nearly 140,000 celestial objects to be not only instantly located for the main telescope but also displayed on a 5' wide lecture screen as well as all the surrounding objects, constellations
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Ricardo Small - who "conceptualized" the rocket idea, giving a lecture in May, 2014.

As we examined the fancy equipment with de facto BAS head Ricardo Small, we asked who would be using it and what exactly they'd be doing, what kind of research or projects.  Again, no clear answers were forthcoming.  We also specifically inquired as to who would use the dedicated solar telescope and what would they do with the H-alpha imagery and photos? No answers, but perhaps "someone" at UWI would undertake a project. No specifics.  What about the fancy Malin NASA- designed camera? Unfortunately, the camera could not be interfaced with the telescope. The reason given by Mr. Small was that "conflicting information" had been given from various sources.

Up to now, or at least the day we read the Nation article, not one bit of evidence has emerged to show the society had done a thing with its existing equipment. And they now wanted to venture into scientific rocketry? Pardon me, but puh-leeze!

Let us grasp that even to launch a relatively small rocket to twenty miles altitude - about the minimum needed to gather any kind of decent data, one needs a properly prepared rocket launch site with adequate safety precautions and lots of space. The Observatory area has none of that. Indeed, it has barely half an acre of land in the midst of a high density development at Clapham, St. Michael. There is no way one could logically or safely launch even a ten foot long rocket from that area and not risk homes in the vicinity.

In fact, Barbados as a whole, as we beheld in our trip the last week of April, first week of May, is now overdeveloped to the point of being ridiculous, i.e. some outfit considering building a 15 story  high rise condo on the shores of Carlisle Bay.  So where will this "space launch" pad be located? The article doesn't say and I don't believe Ricardo Small or anyone else has a remote clue. In fact, I cannot see any place or location on the island that would be suitable or safe for genuine rocket launches.  It is basically a PR pipedream spun by members who think they can catapult into respectability and gravitas merely by talking about such.

According to  Mr. Small, quoted in The Nation piece:

We understand the Barbados Astronomical Society and astronomy are not widely appreciated. Therefore, I have conceptualised a project called Project Skyreach which we will be revealing in all of its entirety in the next couple weeks.”

The impression I got from reading his quote is that he is frustrated that the BAS is gaining so little respect in the larger society, and that includes the astronomy - such as it is.  But, as I pointed out to several members in May of 2014, e.g.

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The respect for your work and society beyond mere "star gazing" has to come by actually DOING something! Especially innovative or insightful research which is then published and circulated, e.g. to libraries in the region and outside.  When Janice and I lived in Barbados, an active group of members dedicated to serious study existed and we produced a quarterly Journal, e.g.

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The Journal featured a wide range of research papers, ranging from aspects of  solar and space physics, to variable stars and their light curves, to investigation of binary star models and sketches of comparative lunar crater shadowing (e.g. in one paper by Janice). Two of her sketches from one issue are shown below:
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The point is, members contributed productive research which was appreciated and which inevitably led to further contributions to the Society.  In several visits we've made since 2012 we've seen none of that - and yet Mr. Small is talking about rocket endeavors.  And what more will these rocket missions do that a solidly thought out research project using the Malin camera and dedicated solar telescope cannot?

Will launching "probes into lower space from Barbados" garner the respect that Mr. Small and the BAS so desperately want?  Hardly! As has already been demonstrated,  merely possessing fancy $1m BDS equipment in telescopes, cameras etc. is not sufficient to garner respect if it just sits there and isn't applied to directed research. And if such applies to already existing equipment, why expect having access to a $2m rocket pad and rockets will make any greater difference? Well, it won't unless there is a concrete research plan. To me, you use the existing land-based equipment to do serious work and then maybe - maybe, you will show you're ready for rocket research (such as carried out at Poker Flat Range in AK).

In the piece, Mr. Small also claimed The Society "was in talks with a number of Government agencies and other entities about the project".  But I can't conceive at all what these agencies would be. After all, there is no "space agency" like NASA on the island. In fact, much of the government impetus for research that does exist is mainly in the area of applied research, e.g. solar energy collectors, not pure research.

Small also claimed "there had been two project meetings so far" but never gives the names or locations. What are they, top secret?  He added:

It will be termed an astro-meteorological experiment. During the ascent, the probe will gather meteorological data at the apex of target altitude, which will be 25 miles in space. We will be shooting the moon, we will be shooting Venus, we will be looking at the curvature of the Earth, we will be looking at the sun and that will be telemetered back to Earth. We will then be guiding the craft back to a landing here in Barbados,”

And I'd ask here, just for inquiry sake, why get involved with meteorological data collection when you've not even begun to do astronomical data collection with the existing equipment donated by the Sfumato Foundation?  As for "shooting the Moon", "shooting Venus" etc. that could be done right now using the photographic equipment and telescopes available - no need for fancy rockets.

Finally, the braggadocio- bred,  exaggerated PR ends with Ricky Small asserting:

If we are successful, we will be the first country in the Caribbean to be able to do it. We will be the first country in the region to do it. Only a few countries have attempted it so far – the United States, Australia, South Africa and Sweden with varying successes......We will be going for the record. This will put Barbados on the map if we are successful."

And my response to this is yeah, and if I am successful in my next mentation, the Roswell aliens will come to life and haul Trump away in a special straight jacket that includes his head.

It is perfectly obvious that Ricardo - confronted by a Nation reporter- found himself eager to plumb the limits of his imagination and extemporaneously portray projects that are about as likely for the BAS as it also undertaking the successful search for actual flying saucers.

What would make me a partial believer in future BAS success and garnering respect from the larger society? Seeing Ricardo and his fellow members resurrect the Journal and publish actual hard research gleaned from data obtained - not by rockets - but by the expensive and sophisticated equipment they already possess. No excuses!

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