Leader: To (almost) boldly go

March 9, 2007

After decades of hibernation, the UK space programme is back. The key to its revival is the idea that spacecraft do not need to get bigger and pricier. Smaller and smarter technology can make missions cheaper and quicker.

The new generation of innovative space missions UK scientists are planning do not aspire to the prestige of programmes such as the International Space Station. They are designed to answer important questions quickly and affordably, rather than spending billions and hoping that something will come of it. This thinking is possible only because of the strength of UK universities. They have expertise in building spacecraft, especially the small ones pioneered by Surrey University. And they are home to some of the world's most creative astronomers and planetary scientists. They are asking big research questions that can be answered by ambitious space missions. It really could be the Open University that discovers life on Mars.

The tightening of government research spending means that these national assets are under pressure. But things are made more complicated by the merger that will see the disappearance of the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council on April 1. The UK's strong position in space will be maintained only if the Science and Technology Facilities Council that replaces Pparc funds curiosity-driven research alongside the technology needed to support it.

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