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UK’s future in Space – a new beginning?

The UK should have involvement in both human and robotic elements of space exploration if it wants to play a full and active role in the unique opportunities that will define space exploration during this century.

This is one of several recommendations made in a report published today [13th September 2007] by the UK Space Exploration Working Group [SEWG], an advisory committee established by the UK Government’s British National Space Centre [BNSC]. The report findings were announced today at the BA Festival of Science in York.

The SEWG was tasked in January this year to review current worldwide plans for space exploration as defined by the Global Exploration Strategy¹ – an international initiative that involves fourteen national space agencies including the UK - which outlines the ambitions of the world’s space-faring nations including China, Russia, India and Japan. The Global Exploration Strategy heralds a new era of exploration that will see humans and robots working in partnership on the surfaces of the Moon and Mars, while fleets of unmanned probes venture out across the far reaches of the solar system.

‘We recommend that the UK engages in preparatory human space flight activities’, said Professor Frank Close, University of Oxford and Chairman of SEWG. ‘Simultaneously we should maintain and extend the UK’s significant role in planetary science and robotic exploration. The UK has had a great tradition in exploration over the centuries but it is now time for a new vision’.

The Working Group’s recommendations stress the need to be involved ‘at the start’ in this grand challenge of space exploration which it believes provides key opportunities for the UK to shape and participate fully in space science whilst building on its position as a centre of excellence for science, technology and innovation. Engaging in both human and robotic elements together will generate valuable scientific knowledge says the report and return value to the UK through technological challenges, innovations and new commercial ventures. The report recommends the UK should establish a detailed plan to enable a decision to be made on whether the UK becomes involved in human space flight in the decade beginning 2010 if it wishes to take advantage of the excellent scientific opportunities that appear in a range of disciplines in the period beyond 2020 when there are plans to establish a permanently crewed lunar outpost.

Professor Close added, ‘For the first time in history the world’s space agencies are planning to work together on the human exploration of the Moon, Mars and perhaps asteroids, with accompanying robotic missions to prepare the way. This is not science fiction – it is the real thing. A high-profile, UK-branded presence in human space exploration would engage British society in the full excitement of space exploration and help to inspire a new generation of scientists and engineers’.

The UK Space Exploration Working Group was tasked with reviewing global plans for space exploration, assessing the opportunities and benefits for UK participation and advising on a suitable focus for UK activities should it decide to engage more strongly in space exploration – including manned space. The resulting conclusions and recommendations have been submitted to UK Space Board, the governing body of BNSC.

Commenting on the report’s recommendations Professor Keith Mason, Chair of UK Space Board and CEO of The Science and Technology Facilities Council, a key partner in BNSC said, ‘the working group has produced a comprehensive report and set of recommendations which will contribute and feed into the new UK Civil Space Strategy currently being developed by BNSC and scheduled for publication this autumn’.

Professor Mason added, ‘Given the global interest in space exploration with the USA, China and India having already announced their intention to establish manned lunar bases, then this report is particularly timely. We shall give serious consideration to its recommendations’.

Peter Barratt | alfa
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