Escape velocity for science and economy

August 23, 2012

Ken Pounds' "Planetary attraction" (Opinion, 16 August) rightly draws attention to the tremendous scientific, technological and inspirational value of space research to advanced economies such as the UK. Alas, he missteps by suggesting that "university space science does not appear to be a priority for the new UK space agency". This is wrong. We have made no cuts to space science in these difficult times and this year will spend around one-third of our budget on it and exploration. Grants to academics for experiments and for exploiting the resultant data have normally been a separate process - not least to allow new researchers to get involved.

Where we do agree with £is that we must keep up our efforts to sustain scientific and economic benefit and growth. He mentions his University of Leicester colleague John Bridges, who is involved in Nasa's Curiosity project and is one of several university scientists we fund as part of a wider Mars exploration programme, which also encompasses a leading role in building the next rover, to be launched in 2018. This next step in our exploration of the Red Planet is funded by us through the European Space Agency and is being built by UK industry.

Already this year we have started work on the Solar Orbiter mission, which will get up close and personal with the Sun, and have funded the Euclid observatory, which will place Europe in the forefront of the search for the mysterious dark energy of the Universe. More than £30 million of fresh investment will flow into British universities as a result. Our investment in missions and techniques to understand our changing planet from the vantage point of space is giving climate researchers vital data while helping to inform policy decisions - the success of CryoSat-2, Europe's first research satellite dedicated to the study of polar ice, being a case in point.

Meanwhile, at the commercial end, our long-term technological investments mean that soon, every UK satellite television channel will be broadcast via a British-built spacecraft - and we expect the industry to strengthen. The latest data show that the UK space sector is growing by 7.5 per cent a year and is now worth £9 billion to the economy annually, driven in no small part by our £250 million yearly investment into space research and development.

Finally, we continue to support education initiatives. These range from the newly established National Space Academy, which helps teachers build the study of space into the curriculum, to our small awards to local groups via the annual Space for All competition, opening again shortly. We are also involved with imaginative international programmes such as Mission-X: Train like an Astronaut, a Nasa-led fitness challenge for primary schools.

In short, the fire of space endeavour in the UK, including space science and exploration, is burning brighter than ever.

David Williams, Chief executive, UK Space Agency

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