Red Planet probe propels UK space into the black

May 30, 2003

As Beagle 2 prepares for lift-off, The THES looks at the state of UK space science and the fate of the Beagle that took Darwin into history

The UK has shied away from planetary science, but now that one British academic has helped get a Mars explorer off the ground, Martin Ince reports on moves to ensure that more follow

There are many experts who sincerely believed Beagle 2 would never amount to anything more than a pipedream. But they reckoned without the matchless drive of Colin Pillinger, who sweated blood to raise the funds and recruit the expertise necessary to make the UK's first interplanetary probe a reality. On the eve of Beagle 2' s launch, he now hopes that it will not prove a one-off.

Pillinger, professor of planetary sciences at the Open University and Gresham professor of astronomy, admits that he is a little baffled as to why the UK has not played a more prominent role in planetary science.

"Britain has a tradition of exploration, yet our budget spend on space is tiny compared with nations that have similar resources but less technological innovation than we do," he says. "But I think we're now starting to turn it around, and I hope Beagle 2 will help make the UK a major player in space exploration in the 21st century."

One informed outsider is David Southwood, director of science at the European Space Agency and a former professor at Imperial College London. A planetary scientist himself, he is sometimes puzzled by the "inferiority complex" of the British in comparison with their counterparts in France or Germany. "The UK was good at planetary science even before Esa was formed in 1972," he says. "But it never built on that success, and the prejudice grew up that the UK does not do planetary science."

Southwood says that in the hunt for funding, cosmology and particle physics are favoured because they ask a small number of big questions about topics such as the origin of the universe. And he blames scientists, not politicians and bureaucrats, for the lack of cash. "Planetary science has too much data, and you need chemistry and biology to understand them as well as physics. British scientists tend to shy away from dirty interdisciplinary problems such as this and are often conservative and intellectually precious," Southwood says.

He points to the forthcoming BepiColombo mission to Mercury as a case in point. "It was mainly a British idea, but we may well find that the funding does not keep up with the aspirations of British scientists." The UK is also somewhat eclipsed by Germany in the Rosetta comet mission despite a long British history in cometary science.

By contrast, when it comes to mainstream astronomy the UK seemed to find no trouble in taking pole position in providing the infrared instrumentation for the James Webb Space Telescope, the planned successor to the Hubble Space Telescope.

But both Pillinger and Southwood see grounds for hope. The British National Space Centre, the space arm of the Department of Trade and Industry, regards planetary science as a valuable way for UK firms to build expertise. This will be supported by up to £9 million earmarked for such projects in the 2002 spending review.

Dave Hall, the BNSC's assistant director for space science, is in charge of spending the money, which, he says, was awarded "in recognition of new interest in planetary science and in the knowledge that the UK could play a leading role in Esa".

He says that the UK will be very involved in two of BepiColombo' s 20 instruments and will have a significant role in Smart 1, the Esa Moon probe due to be launched this summer. This is a far healthier picture than when Mars Express was designed in the 1990s, and the UK was unable to take the lead for any of the orbiter's instruments.

Hall says: "The UK still does not spend enough to take part in space projects on the scale it did perhaps 15 years ago, when we were involved in two of the eight instruments on board (Halley's Comet mission) Giotto, three of the 11 on Cluster (a mission to study the Earth's interaction with the Sun) and two of the three on XMM (an X-ray astronomy mission). More recently, there have been missions such as Integral, in gamma ray astronomy, which owes a lot to work at Southampton University but in which the UK did not participate. But now we have an uplift in funding to allow us to exploit the Esa programme more fully."

Hall notes that the current UK weakness in planetary science arises partly from a decision a decade ago to concentrate on Sun-Earth interaction, since relaunched under the more stylish title of "space weather". Despite this decision, he points out, UK expertise remained, for example Fred Taylor's group in Oxford, which reacted to the situation by getting involved in US missions.

Now there is some cash for planetary science, and Hall points to a clutch of projects to spend it on, including Smart 1, Venus Express and a possible mission called Earthshine, which would place a satellite around the Sun to measure solar emissions and the energy reflected back by the Earth, with direct relevance to global warming.

This satellite could be built under the DTI's Mosaic scheme, which is meant to build on another area of UK expertise that the government is keen to develop, the manufacture of small satellites, pioneered by the University of Surrey and its spin-off, Surrey Satellite Technology. Earthshine, which could be launched in 2007, would be the first UK science satellite in 20 years, Hall says.

At the same time, Britain will build on its success in probing the mysteries of space weather. Manuel Grande, a leading space scientist at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, says the field is one of the easiest for an aspiring space nation to explore. "Even the US started out this way, with little more than a Geiger counter in its first satellite."

The UK has built a strong lead in space weather research and played a major role in missions such as Cluster and Soho, which studied the particles and fields that surround our planet. Grande notes that such expertise has contributed to a key instrument being carried by Mars Express, the Esa satellite that will orbit the Red Planet while Beagle 2 is on the ground.

"If there is water inside Mars," he says, " Beagle 2 will find it. But if there is water escaping into space, this instrument will see it."

A similar instrument made from Mars Express leftovers at the bargain price of £60,000 will be on board Esa's Venus Express mission. There is also UK participation in Cassini-Huygens, the Nasa/Esa mission now on its way to Saturn and its satellite Titan. Hall points out that the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council keeps about 20 per cent of its space spend for collaboration with Japan, the US and others because the Esa programme does not cover everything the UK community wants to participate in.

In the longer term, Hall expects a European space ministers' meeting in 2004 to express enthusiasm for a human presence on Mars some time around 2025. This mission would be preceded by a lively programme of robot exploration of Mars and of technology development, perhaps involving putting Europeans on the Moon.

Does this new money mean that Pillinger's tin-waving to get Beagle 2 off the ground will turn out to have been a one-off? Grande says: "It is a matter of priorities. If Beagle 2 does find life, the cost will be seen to be trivial. The sums are not huge by the standards of a national economy."

Such a monumental success would open the door to new imaginative missions, such as sending a swimming robot into the deep oceans of Europa, the enigmatic moon of Jupiter.

But Hall says that he "does not anticipate many British scientists following Pillinger's example", if only because "Colin is a very unusual man, and most other people would have given up". He adds that it also takes energy and drive to get a prime investigator slot on an officially funded space mission. "Only a few come along per career - and if you miss out, it is a big loss."

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