Note: some artistic licence may have been used here (credit Guido).
The reputation of most journalists doesn’t survive contact with subject matter they don’t know about. If they write about a subject you understand, the errors you spot leave you wondering if the rest of their output, on subjects where you don’t have in-depth knowledge, is similarly full of errors.
In fact, there’s even a name for the fact that we don’t systematically disbelieve them- the Gell-Mann amnesia effect.
So it’s actually very encouraging that Guido Fawkes messed up this week, and then very clearly apologised and recovered.
There was an announcement at the Farnborough Air Show that there’s going to be a spaceport built in Northern Scotland. Small rockets will launch small satellites into orbit from there. Yay!
But Guido pointed to this as evidence that “government industrial strategies are a bad idea”:
“The reason spaceports are usually and preferably sited near the Equator is because that is where the Earth’s rotational speed is the highest. Rockets launched from sites near the Equator get an additional natural boost that helps save the cost of putting in extra fuel and boosters. So putting a spaceport in the North of a northern hemisphere country is just plain dumb.”
Well… up to a point, Lord Copper. If you want your satellite to go round the Earth in the same plane as the Equator or thereabouts, then yes, you want to use a launch pad that’s already moving pretty fast as the Earth spins. Your satellite has to hurtle Eastward at 9.7km/sec, and the faster the Earth rotates under the launchpad, the less work your rocket has to do to get it to that speed. (To be pendantic about it: the benefit is proportional to the cosine of the latitude.)
But that’s only the case if you want the satellite to orbit in a plane near the equator, and only go North or South roughly as far as your launch site.
If your satellite is supposed to be looking down at the Earth, then you want a polar orbit- an orbit that’s slanted with respect to the Equator, so the satellite goes a long way North and a long way South, so it covers lots of territory.
And for that sort of orbit you won’t benefit much from the Earth rotating. That free boost only works in an Eastward direction. You need to hurl your satellite Northwards or Southwards at that same 9.7 km/sec, and the Earth’s rotation won’t help with that. No matter where you launch from, your rocket will have to provide pretty much all that speed anyway.
So my immediate thought on seeing that article was… D’OH! Guido has messed up. And my second reaction was… so if Guido messes up like that, does that mean I can’t trust his writings on other things?
So it was a great relief to see Guido do an about-face:
“A number of well informed readers have been in touch to dispute this, claiming that Scotland is perfect for ‘polar orbit launches’ (…) In the circumstances Guido feels we should clarify and correct the record.
We have learnt two things; sometimes it pays to read more than the headline on a press release,
a lot of rocket scientists read Guido…”.
And note who has been in touch. There is no trace of we’ve-had-a-letter-from-a-solicitor grovelling. The contact was from “well informed readers” and “rocket scientists”.
Well played, Guido. And other journalists, please take note.