UK space dreamers prepare for lift-off

March 9, 2007

British scientists are reaching for the stars, but without funding they could stay grounded. Chloe Stothart reports.

A good way to gauge public perceptions of your subject is to ask a taxi driver, according to Sir Martin Sweeting, who runs a university spin-off firm that makes satellites.

He routinely does this on his way to meetings. "I ask how many satellites they think the UK has launched," he said. "They think it is all done by the US and maybe the Russians."

In fact, his firm, Surrey Satellite Technology (SST), a Surrey University spin-off, is the world leader in small satellites, and it sells them to some of the countries more often thought of as space superpowers such as the US and Russia. "It's Britain's best kept secret," he said.

In laboratories around the country, scientists are working to keep Britain at the forefront of several areas of space research as we head towards what some are describing as a "global space renaissance".

Satellites built by SST, winner of The Times Higher 's 2006 Outstanding Contribution to Innovation and Technology award, have played a vital role in showing aid workers where to go in the relief efforts for Hurricane Katrina and the Indian Ocean tsunami.

Colin Pillinger of the Open University led the team that created the Beagle 2 lander for the Mars Express mission, while images and data beamed back from the Mars Express orbiter are analysed by his colleague John Murray.

The BepiColombo mission, which is due to be launched in 2013, will explore the terrain of Mercury. Imperial College London, the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory and Leicester University will build some of the equipment.

And a funding bid has been made for the UK's first mission to the Moon.

Such is the optimism that some UK academics are daring, despite the massive funding hurdle, to eye up the ultimate prize: a revival of manned space exploration, with the UK playing a central role.

Kevin Fong, Times Higher columnist and co-director of University College London's Centre for Aviation, Space and Extreme Environment Medicine, was adamant that these developments offer a rare opportunity to persuade the Government to support manned space exploration.

In 2005, the Royal Astronomical Society concluded that human space exploration was key to answering the questions of "profound interest to the human race", including the origins of the solar system and life on other planets. Late last year, the Royal Society invited Michael Griffin, the head of Nasa, to the UK, where he sought to rally British support for Nasa's new vision of space exploration, including manned missions to the Moon and to Mars. Crucially, Malcolm Wicks, the Science Minister, is talking to Nasa and making enthusiastic noises about getting Britons involved in manned missions.

Dr Fong said: "I have looked at this for the past ten years, and this is as good as I have ever seen it. I believe it is now or forget it forever because we will never fly an astronaut if we do not do it in the next five years."

There may be no publicly funded rocket programme in the UK, but a private one is under way. Virgin Galactic, part of Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Group, plans to be the first private passenger space scheme.

Will Whitehorn, Virgin Galactic's president, thinks climate change will be the spur for the Government and business to get more interested in space.

"I think we will see a renaissance in space, the like of which we have not seen since the Apollo programme, once government and business understand how important space could be in climate change and reducing our carbon footprint," he said.

Mr Whitehorn added: "If the BBC moved all broadcast masts and transmitters, which have to be powered, to a couple of small satellites we could save half a million tonnes of CO2 because satellites are solar-powered. This would be possible with the digital broadcasting revolution."

But funding has always been, and remains, the key barrier for space research in Britain.

Len Culhane, winner of a Royal Astronomical Society gold medal and professor of physics at UCL's Mullard Space Science Laboratory, insists more money needs to go into our national space programme to put scientists in the best position to compete for European Space Agency contracts.

"France, Germany and Italy spend more on their national programmes relative to ESA than we do and, looking to the future, that is something of a national crisis."

A House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee inquiry into space is due to report this month, and a government consultation on space policy, closing in April, is likely to hear impassioned pleas for more money.

The results have the potential to inspire today's schoolchildren into science just like the Apollo missions inspired today's leading space scientists. It could have profound effects for generations.


Even a "failed" space project such as the Beagle 2 mission to Mars has worthwhile spin-offs.

The craft, which was developed by a British-led team, was supposed to land on the surface of Mars on Christmas Day 2003 and assess the geology and environment to look for conditions for life.

However, the team lost contact with Beagle 2, and it is thought to have crash-landed. But that is not the end of the road.

Now, instead of hunting for evidence of Martians, the project could help to treat one of the world's killer diseases.

Colin Pillinger (pictured), the Open University professor who led the Beagle 2 team, is looking at whether the compact gas analysis technology developed for the mission could be used to provide a rapid test for tuberculosis.

"At the moment, TB is detected by cultivating organisms, but it does not cultivate for six to eight weeks - by which time it could be too late," he said.

The small, portable machine developed by Professor Pillinger's team could be useful in sub-Saharan Africa. A prototype is being developed with the Wellcome Trust.

"It is not the old chestnut about Teflon frying pans; this is a real spin-off from a space mission," he said.

Professor Pillinger and his team suffered some rather stinging remarks over Beagle 2's demise on Mars, and there were criticisms of the millions spent on the mission.

But the spin-off is an example of how the money spent in space "returns to Earth" in the form of knowledge and technology, he said. "How much would we pay to solve TB in the Third World?"

For him, the public excitement and the spin-off possibilities generated by Beagle 2 should have taught the cautious a lesson about risk. "The real problem with this is if we want to do exciting things there is an element of risk. If we do things without risk, people do not get turned on."

Mission to Mars and the Moon

If there are martians, then British scientists will be helping to find them.

Open University scientist John Murray and his colleagues on the Mars Express mission have found evidence of a frozen sea on the planet based on images from cameras on the spacecraft.

The sea is thought to be evidence of violent water eruptions on Mars. The water comes from an underground source, and it shoots to the surface when cracks open in the planet's crust. Low atmospheric pressure means the water "blows up like a bottle of champagne" and then freezes when it gets to the surface, Dr Murray said.

He added that the water eruptions could be bringing micro-organisms to the surface of Mars. Micro-organisms have been found reproducing without light 2-3km below the surface in South Africa, relying on geothermal heat.

"If this could happen on Earth, then could this happen on Mars?" he asked.

An Italian scientist on the mission has found methane in the frozen sea. So far, scientists think methane can be produced only biologically or volcanically. The area is a long way from the nearest volcano, so the methane could be more evidence of life on the planet.

In Alaska, organisms have lived in temperatures of - 4C, only a little warmer than the temperatures on Mars, and they exhale carbon dioxide and methane - the principal constituents of the Martian atmosphere.

"My view is that the frozen Sea of Elysium would be the best place to land and look (for signs of life)," Dr Murray said.

"That excites me most about the future. I hope the European and perhaps Nasa lander missions will choose this as the landing site."

The images also show that the icecaps on Mars are retreating, just as they are on Earth. There is a possibility that this could have been caused by a freakishly cold winter followed by an unusually warm one. But if a second set of pictures shows the same phenomena, then Mars, too, could be undergoing global warming, indicating another possible source for the warming of the Earth, Dr Murray said.

* The UK could have its first mission to the Moon if the funding powers at the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council give it the nod.

The Moonlite mission, which could arrive on the Moon by 2010, would send up a satellite to throw four dart-like penetrators at the Moon's surface. Travelling at 1,125km/h, the darts would send back images, temperature data, information on chemical composition and allow the scientists to listen for moonquakes.

The Moon has no atmosphere to interfere with its surface, so it can provide information about the history of the early solar system and how planets were formed.

"It can help to answer the question about where we all come from," said Andrew Coates at University College London's Mullard Space Science Laboratory.

The darts will go to the little explored far side of the Moon, the lunar pole and the near side of the Moon.

Eventually, similar darts could be taken to Europa, a moon of Jupiter. "It has an icy crust and liquid underneath, and the penetrator concept would be very good for that. Europa is another place with frozen water, so it is a good place to look for the building blocks of life."

Imperial College London, the Surrey Space Centre, the Open University, Southampton University and Birkbeck, University of London, are involved.

Surrey Satellite Technology will supply the satellite, and Qinetiq will provide the impact systems.

Chloe Stothart

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