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Satellite disruption, train distancing, engine design and more: best of the week’s news

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E&T staff pick the news from the past week that caught their eye and reflect on what these latest developments in engineering and technology mean to them. For the full story, just click on the headline.

Jonathan Wilson, online managing editor

Satellite constellations will ‘fundamentally’ disrupt astronomy

It must be frustrating being an astronomer, professional or amateur. The central premise of your chosen occupation is the observation and study of the night sky, gazing up at the stars and planets that populate the universe beyond Earth's atmosphere - only people keep lobbing objects directly into your line of vision and spoiling the view. What's worse, there's not a lot you can do about it. If SpaceX wants to throw 30,000 satellites up into low-Earth orbit in the name of broadband internet progress, which will then spend their eternity endlessly encircling the globe and obscuring your view of space, well, it's going to happen, so you'd better get used to it and find a way to peer around them. To give you an idea of the scale the problem, in 2013 there were only around 1,100 satellites over the Earth. Roughly half of those were in low-Earth orbit (a few hundred kilometres above the Earth); the rest were in medium-Earth orbit (20,000km up) or geostationary orbit (36,000km up). Since that time, more and more satellites have been launched, with many thousands more planned especially for low-Earth orbit. It's going to get pretty crowded up there - and they'll all be in the way for the world's astronomers. This article lays out the issues, as well as some of the solutions floated - including some interesting cooperative efforts from SpaceX itself.

Train operator displays social distancing capacity by measuring carriage weight

Having transitioned from being someone who used long-distance rail travel twice a week, every week, to now not using trains at all - courtesy of the coronavirus pandemic - I have no idea how the trains are looking these days. Not as crammed as before, perhaps, but equally not the ghost trains they became almost overnight just a few months ago. From the statistics I've read, the majority of people still prefer to use their private cars rather than considering public trains for journeys, which raises other issues regarding road congestion, air pollution and so forth. The desire for clean, safe personal space is entirely understandable during a public health crisis, of course. Train passenger numbers are creeping back up slowly, much to the relief of rail operators, but people want to feel as safe as possible with Covid-19 still very much in the air. This 'SeatFinder' initiative by Southeastern, which will display live loading data for each service on its website, lets travellers make an informed decision about whether to board a crowded train or wait for the next one. It's a simple, effective way to openly share data with customers, from which everyone can benefit.

Ben Heubl, associate editor

New internal combustion engine design produces zero harmful emissions

I’d like to insert a call for some caution here. Although I’m unable to comment on the technical aspects of this newly proposed technology, I do agree with Giulio Mattioli - who spent time as a transport researcher at the School of Earth and Environment at the University of Leeds - that there is sufficient precedence where early-stage innovations have been used "as an excuse not to implement 'uncomfortable' climate policies, such as tackling demand."

Over the past decade, this has been most apparent in the aviation sector. A 2016 academic paper, 'Are technology myths stalling aviation climate policy?’ questioned claims by airlines and airline organisations that aviation will become climatically ‘sustainable’. Researchers found a "wide range of solutions to growing emissions from aviation have been presented by industry, hyped in global media, and subsequently vanished to be replaced by new technology discourses.”

In other words, it can be a theatrical performance. The international research team also concluded that tech myths would require policy makers to interpret and take into account technical uncertainty, which may result in inaction that continues to delay much needed progress in climate policy for aviation. For this to happen within the car sector isn’t unusual.

What also worries me is the lack of balance and scepticism in news coverage of the story. Reports on the project in Valencia failed to mention the drawbacks and to pinpoint a clear timeline when we could see such an engine on the road.

I needn’t mention that the petrol car industry is expanding. An E&T investigation of the worrying trend towards bigger and dirtier cars found that even during the current pandemic, the UK has still managed to sell and register 641,801 petrol and diesel cars during 2020 compared with a meagre 39,119 battery electric vehicles.

There’s no doubt that the world as a whole is still car-dependent. Media reports on innovative combustion engine technology which trumps calls by EU and British legislators to remove petrol cars is exactly the kind of messaging which auto lobbyists and Big Oil wants to hear. It’s something that we should keep in mind when we see figures of emission-heavy SUV cars outselling electric vehicles by a factor of more than five. Dual-purpose cars have accounted for 25 per cent of all new registrations this year, while EVs accounted for 4.7 per cent, according to SMMT figures. Last year, it was 37 times more SUVs compared to sales of electric vehicles. At least here we see some minor progress.

Tim Fryer, technology editor

Satellite constellations will ‘fundamentally’ disrupt astronomy

My instinctive reaction to this was ‘get over it’. Having considered this further and taken into account my (huge) lack of knowledge of the art and science of astronomy, it’s still ‘get over it’. The human race is developing and communication is behind our technological evolution and dominance as a species. Current and next-generation comms needs satellites and if the cost is a slightly spoiled view of outer space, that is an incredibly small price to pay.

In truth, my real reason for not buying into this problem is that I have read about the astonishing things astronomers can do. The identification of potentially life-sustaining planets that are millions of light years away, just by minute changes in the light profile of the stars that they orbit: it’s an amazing feat of observation, physics and mathematics. These are incredibly intelligent people. The notion that they can deduce such incredible discoveries but can’t allow for the effects of satellites, whose location and light properties they know, seems a bit nonsensical to me. Maybe they just don’t like people spoiling their dark skies – a bit of NIMBYism in low-Earth orbit.

Dominic Lenton, managing editor

Battery-powered face mask with fans unveiled by LG

If we’d featured a device like this in E&T’s monthly roundup of the latest gadgets a year ago, I’m certain we’d have received letters dismissing it as a hoax or a luxury item with limited appeal amongst hypochondriac consumers. At this point in 2020, not only is a big brand like LG bringing it to the mainstream, but it’s probably going to find a viable market in most countries around the world.

In fact, it’s a good example of why past trends are generally a poor basis for predicting what life will be like in the future. Without Covid-19, who would have forecast – even in science-fiction – that this decade would see regular members of the public walking the streets protected from disease and pollutants by a bulky mask that incorporates industry-grade air filters and battery-powered fans? The kicker being that once they’ve been widely adopted, are we going to stop using them after the immediate threat of the current pandemic has subsided?

The obvious next step in the evolution of wearable tech like this is convergence. Combine it with the emerging ‘hearables’ sector that’s building on the ubiquity of in-hear headphones, and augmented-reality displays, and you’ve got a full face mask packed with technology. A fantasy? Maybe, but so was this wearable air purifier just a short time ago.

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