Watch this space for a galaxy update

June 6, 1997

Are we on the verge of a new star trekking age to rival the Apollo era or is all the media coverage of comets, probes and life on Mars just fund-raising hype? Julia Hinde reports

From comet Hale Bopp to Galileo, the satellite with an eye on Jupiter, hardly a day passes without an astronomy story hitting the headlines.

Exotically named instruments - Hubble, SAX and ISO - are relaying information from the outer reaches of the universe. Back on earth scientists are preparing missions to take us into the next millennium. Cassini-Huygens, Rosetta, Gemini and XMM will be the next space names jostling for column inches. Space has not been so popular since the late 1960s, when America beat the Russians to put Neil Armstrong on the moon.

There is talk of a second age of astronomy, in which Europe plays as big a part as America and Russia did in the space race 30 years ago. Could we be close to unlocking the deepest secrets of the universe? Maybe. But amid the excitement there are a few sceptical voices. They point out that more than 100 jobs are on the line as part of restructuring at Britain's two Royal Observatories, while the future of key telescopes in England and on La Palma, one of Britain's overseas astronomy sites, is under threat. Some astronomers fear that the European Space Agency's decision to relaunch the ill-fated Cluster satellites, designed to take a three-dimensional look at the solar winds but which exploded last summer, could mean delays to other space projects. In such a climate, the sceptics hint, is it an accident that space projects are seeking (and getting) so much media attention and acclaim? After all, without public support what chance do scientists have of being given the huge sums of money needed to launch a space mission?

The American space agency Nasa has been pushing its Origins programme, which includes so-called fossil evidence of microscopic life on Mars, for the past year with press conferences, seminars and lectures worldwide. Many are cynical about Nasa's meteorite evidence, believing the organisation to be cashing in to win much needed funding from Congress.

Durham cosmologist Richard Bower says. "To get funding for expensive space equipment you have to make a lot of the results you get. Nasa is very good at making the most of results." "It is not just a question of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe," agrees Phil Charles, head of astrophysics at Oxford University. "The crucial first step is to demonstrate that there are at least planets around other stars. Whether they are similar to our solar system and hence capable of supporting life is a much harder question that will require truly innovative techniques into the next century.

"With the success of movies like Independence Day we capitalise to a certain extent on the public's inaccurate appreciation of the difficulties of space travel. With so many people in government, on both sides of the Atlantic, ignorant of science, (media attention) is often the only way to get the idea across. Furthermore in the US, they have realised for a long time that they need to get the public behind them given the amount of money they spend."

European astronomers are learning from the American experience. In the 1960s, unlimited resources were pumped into the US space dream as the battle between the superpowers unfolded. But, following early public successes, the programme slowed in the 1980s. "From the late 1970s until the early 1990s Nasa, frankly, got into a bit of a mess," says Ken Pounds, chief executive of the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council. "The agency got involved in large projects that fell behind schedule and produced relatively little."

While Nasa was struggling with massively expensive missions, European and Japanese space science, with less of a tradition for courting the media, was growing and, recently, finally delivering results. Paul Murdin, head of astronomy at PPARC, says: "There is a resurgence in astronomy, certainly in the UK. In the 1960s we were watching a US success. Like all spectator sports, it is not like partaking. We have been building up for 30 years. But space science is now flowering in Europe and Britain."

But funding undoubtedly remains a huge challenge for the future. Already Nasa has agreed to run smaller, cheaper and faster programmes. The push to do so has been encouraged by the quick and cheap moon mission Clementine - launched by the Department of Defense on Strategic Defense initiative funds, not by Nasa. In Britain, cuts to the ground-based programme are well publicised and many believe that in Europe too, smaller, cheaper missions may soon become the norm. Faced with such conditions all the signs are that the hyping of space programmes and results will continue apace. But a new picture of the universe is, slowly, beginning to emerge.

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.


Featured jobs