UK Wants Spaceport, More ISS Research

UK_space_agencyBy Douglas Messier
Parabolic Arc Managing Editor

The UK is looking to spend £25 to £50 million ($41.9 to $83.8 million) on a spaceport because it believes that “after the US, the UK has the best chance to be the second country in the world to enable spaceplane operations.”

That’s the word from the UK Department for Business Innovation & Skills (DBIS), which recently published “Creating the Future: A 2020 Vision for Science & Research: A Consultation on Proposals for Long-Term Capital Investment in Science & Research.”

“A national spaceport (£25-50M) is identified by the Space IGS Growth Action Plan as an enabler to new markets, such as space tourism and low cost access to space complementary to the UK expertise in small satellites,” the report states. “A current National Space Technology Programme study has identified the requirements and a parallel activity is analysing the regulatory environment.”

The report does not state exactly what would operate from the spaceport, although the British built Skylon and Sir Richard Branson’s SpaceShipTwo have been mentioned in media reports. This would indicate that officials are pinning their hopes on being able to launch satellites and capture some portion of the space tourism market.

How realistic these hopes are remains to be seen. Most satellite are launched to the east to take advantage of the Earth rotation. Unfortunately, continental Europe lies in that direction. Suborbital space tourism requires something the UK is often bereft of: clear weather.  Tourists will not pay a quarter million dollars to look down on clouds. And there’s nothing in the DBIS report about a machine capable of blowing bad weather far out to sea.

The document lays out an ambitious agenda for the UK’s space program, including a national space propulsion system, a mission to the International Space Station (ISS), a planetary sample curation facility, and a series of other initiatives to be done independently and in cooperation with ESA and other international partners.

“A national space propulsion facility (£6M) for R&D and production testing of thrusters in a simulated space environment would support the growth of several UK companies,” the report states.

Officials are also placing a big emphasis on a planned mission to ISS by Tim Peake, who was the first UK astronaut ever chosen by ESA.

“Tim Peake’s mission represents a major opportunity to inspire young people to take up STEM subjects, both through the dedicated education programme the UK Space Agency is developing, and by providing a high-profile role model for STEM careers,” the report states. “It also provides a rare, highly-visible and international platform to demonstrate UK technological expertise and leadership in scientific research.”

Beyond Peake’s mission, the UK should also take maximum advantage of its participation in the European Programme for Life and Physical Sciences (ELIPS).

“ELIPS covers all microgravity facilities, but only countries subscribing to both ELIPS and ISS may lead ISS experiments,” the report reads. “ELIPS, the European Life and Physical Sciences programme funds science conducted on the ISS and other space-analogue platforms, which mimic one or more aspect of the space environment (microgravity, extreme vacuum, isolation, radiation, etc). In the one year the UK has participated in the programme, there has been a strong uptake from the science community, especially in the fields of materials science, biomedicine and astrobiology.”

DBIS also touted the construction of a planetary sample curation facility where materials brought back from other worlds could be studied. Developing the facility is estimated to cost £25 to £45 million, with contributions expected from ESA and the European Union (EU).

“The UK has both the scientific and technological capability to stake a claim for the European facility, one of perhaps two or three that would be built worldwide,” the report states. “This would place the UK at the heart of global space exploration in the 21st Century.”

Excerpts from the DBIS document describing planned and proposed programs follow.

National Spaceport and Space Propulsion Facility
Estimated capital cost: £30-60m
Estimated operational costs: Subject to detailed business case
Delivery partners: UK Space Agency

A national spaceport (£25-50M) is identified by the Space IGS Growth Action Plan as an enabler to new markets, such as space tourism and low cost access to space complementary to the UK expertise in small satellites. A current National Space Technology Programme study has identified the requirements and a parallel activity is analysing the regulatory environment. After the US, the UK has the best chance to be the second country in the world to enable spaceplane operations.

A national space propulsion facility (£6M) for R&D and production testing of thrusters in a simulated space environment would support the growth of several UK companies.

International Space Station (ISS) Exploitation Programme
Estimated costs: £25m earmarked by Government in March 2014
Delivery partners: 20 international partners including the UK.

The ISS Exploitation programme funds the operations cost of the International Space Station (ISS). The UK’s 20M€ one-off contribution at the ESA Council of Ministers in 2012 has opened up new industrial opportunities, allowed UK scientists to lead experiments and influenced the selection of Tim Peake’s mission. A continued subscription would allow the UK to build on and significantly extend these opportunities.

Tim Peake’s mission represents a major opportunity to inspire young people to take up STEM subjects, both through the dedicated education programme the UK Space Agency is developing, and by providing a high-profile role model for STEM careers. It also provides a rare, highly-visible and international platform to demonstrate UK technological expertise and leadership in scientific research.

Importantly, additional ongoing subscription to ISS will allow future enhancement of the terminal with a new phased antenna array, provided by UK industry.

A longer term commitment to this programme would also allow the science community to make full use of the UK’s ELIPS subscription: ELIPS covers all microgravity facilities, but only countries subscribing to both ELIPS and ISS may lead ISS experiments. ELIPS, the European Life and Physical Sciences programme funds science conducted on the ISS and other space-analogue platforms, which mimic one or more aspect of the space environment (microgravity, extreme vacuum, isolation, radiation, etc). In the one year the UK has participated in the programme, there has been a strong uptake from the science community, especially in the fields of materials science, biomedicine and astrobiology.

European Space Agency Programme (Decision Points in 2014 and 2016)
Estimated costs: Subject to international negotiation
Delivery partners: UK Space Agency, European Space Agency

The UK’s current commitment to ESA of £100m per annum runs until 2017-18. The next two European Space Agency (ESA) Council of Ministers meetings will be held in December 2014 and in 2016. These determine multi-year commitments from 2017 to continue existing projects, and to start new ones.

The fundamental rationale for ESA membership is for the UK to participate in and benefit from projects it would be unable to fund on its own; and from this develop mutually beneficial collaborations and world-class scientific and industrial capacity.

ESA Ministerial 2014: The next ESA Ministerial will not address the full set of ESA programme (science, Earth observation, telecoms etc.) but is expected to focus only on key decisions requiring urgent decision comprising: continued funding of the International Space Station (ISS); completion of funding for the exobiology on Mars (ExoMars) project; and the start of the next European launch vehicle. While the UK has interests in the first two it does not intend to participate in the third.

ESA Ministerial 2016: By the time of the 2016 Ministerial, many of the UK’s existing commitments to ESA will come to the end of their current phase. The choices made at the ESA Ministerial will set the UK’s strategy for the current decade and – for some key decisions on major new projects – could determine our space industry’s growth for decades to come.

A balanced package of investment at C-Min 2016 will reinforce the success of a sector that now contributes over £9bn to the UK economy. While it is too early to define specific proposals, activities are likely to build on existing programmes:

  • ESA’s mandatory programme including the General Budget and the highly successful Space Science Programme which has produced world class projects such as Herschel, and Planck.
  • Telecommunications (ARTES) which develops and exploits satellites for telecommunications and their application in commercial services including Alphasat and Hylas 1. Most of this programme is jointly funded with industry (50-50) and thus is market led.
  • The Earth Observation Envelope Programme (EOEP) which builds spacecraft to study the Earth from space and exploits the data returned. The UK has gained strong scientific and industrial benefit from the current 70 phase on missions such as Cryosat, SWARM and EarthCARE.
  • Global Monitoring of the Environment and Security (GMES) is part of the European contribution to the global effort to develop long term Earth observation data sets for both public policy use and commercial exploitation.
  • The Mars Robotic Programme (MREP), a science-driven roadmap for breakthrough technology such as robotics and nuclear batteries for missions leading to a future international Mars Sample Return scientific mission.
  • The International Space Station (ISS) programme, focussed on utilisation and exploitation of technology and science aboard the ISS and preparing for future human exploration of the Moon, Mars and beyond – see Section 2.3.
  • The European Life and Physical Sciences Programme (ELIPS) exploits the space environment for fundamental and applied science. Benefits include insights into human ageing and new materials for jet engines.
  • Generic Support Technology Programme (GSTP) takes early phase space technology R&D across the ‘valley of death’ into practical application. The programme benefits SMEs who work with European partners and take advantage of ESA’s recognised technical and quality standards to create high value products.
  • ESA’s Space Situational Awareness (SSA) programme, which develops means to monitor and mitigate hazards caused to space and terrestrial infrastructure by space weather and space debris.

M3 Space Mission
UK intention to invest announced March 2014.
Estimated costs: Subject to international negotiations
Delivery partners: UK Space Agency, European Space Agency

The European Space Agency’s next major space science mission, Plato, has been selected as the third Medium-class mission (‘M3’) in its ‘Cosmic Vision’ programme.

Plato

Plato is a mission to detect Earth like planets by observing thousands of stars simultaneously, and the characterisation of their atmospheres addressing the potential suitability for life and indeed, looking for signs of life. When combined with dedicated follow up observations with other space based telescopes such as the James Webb Space Telescope, and ground based facilities such as the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT), we would be able to characterise and detect life signatures. Plato is under UK scientific leadership with the UK hosting the largest exoplanet research community in Europe.

With UK investment, the UK Space Agency will run an open competition, inviting bids from industry to provide the system engineering management. The successful bidder will be selected on the basis of technical competence and availability of a suitably experienced and co-located team, as well as cost-effectiveness and geo-return considerations.

Space Data – Ground Stations and Analysis
Estimated capital cost: £35m
Estimated operational costs: Subject to detailed business case
Delivery partners: UK Space Agency

A ten year plan to produce a coordinated network of ground stations for reception of space data (£17m) is foreseen to integrate and update the range of existing facilities at Borden, Hampshire; Goonhilly, Cornwall; Harwell Oxford; and Chilton, Oxfordshire, into a national infrastructure.

Investment in the Climate and Environmental Monitoring from Space (CEMS) facility at Harwell Oxford (£9M) would allow the UK to extract maximum value from the EU’s GMES ‘Copernicus’ programme. It will also enable wider international collaboration in using space to understand climate change and develop operational services.

Similarly, sustained investment in hardware and software to maintain the UK’s capability in specialist data processing systems for space science (£9m) will support current and future major observatory class such as JWST and Euclid, due for launch in 2018 and 2020 respectively. Processing the data into a usable form for scientific analysis is a leading challenge in automated management and analysis of huge and complex datasets. The wider applicability of the techniques developed to implement this challenge in industry and broader areas of science (e.g. medicine) is large.

Space Data – Exploitation
Estimated capital cost: £15m
Estimated operational costs: Subject to detailed business case
Delivery partners: UK Space Agency

A facility for the exploitation of space data for commercial and civil security applications (£16M) would promote downstream applications of space data including those that require civil security measures. Public regulated service (PRS) applications show very high potential value and UK has technology solutions under current programme R&D. There is a fit with DSTL interest in NovaSAR and other applications development, and the facility would be important in developing radar and other advanced analysis.

Planetary Sample Curation Facility
Estimated capital cost: £25-45m
Estimated operational costs: Subject to detailed business case
Delivery partners: UK Space Agency

A planetary sample curation facility (£25-45M plus co-funding with ESA/EU) to house and study planetary material returned from the Solar System will be needed in the 2020s, and the UK has both the scientific and technological capability to stake a claim for the European facility, one of perhaps two or three that would be built worldwide. This would place the UK at the heart of global space exploration in the 21st Century.

TRUTHS
Estimated capital cost: £150m
Estimated operational costs: Subject to detailed business case
Delivery partners: UKSA

There is a recognised need for a space-born system for radiometric calibration. With the extent of earth-observation from space, the system would improve accuracy and reliability of datasets upon which current and future climate studies will be based.

Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST)
Estimated costs: Subject to international negotiation
Delivery partners: RCUK, USA and other international partners

The Large Synoptic Survey telescope to be built in Chile will revolutionise astronomy by undertaking a unique sky survey in six wavebands to produce a dataset 1,000 times larger than its predecessors, opening up large scale stuffy for the first time, building on the knowledge provided by the current ESA Gaia mission. LSST participation will be pivotal in the array of southern hemisphere facilities in the 2020s. It is complementary to the Square Kilometre Array and European-Extremely Large Telescope, and will have science reach covering cosmology, exoplanet and asteroid searches, and black holes studies. Its 3.2bn pixel camera (expected to use UK-made detectors under contract) will obtain photometry of 4 billion galaxies. The enormous data challenge will require several, fully synchronised data centres to enable early recognition of the most interesting transient objects. Scientific participation in the LSST for the UK astronomy community would potentially include the development of a European data centre, based in the UK, in collaboration with France. This would target investment in a priority area where the UK has existing expertise and guarantee a UK-lead in early science.

Long Baseline Neutrino Experiments
Estimated costs: Subject to international negotiation
Delivery partners: RCUK, USA, Japan and other international partners

The European Strategy for Particle Physics identified the strong scientific case for a long baseline neutrino programme and recommended that Europe should explore the possibility of major participation in leading next generation long baseline neutrino projects in the US and Japan. UK groups are collaborating to produce a coherent plan for future UK participation in this programme. Two potential projects are being developed, the Long Baseline Neutrino Experiment in the US, and the T2HK neutrino experiment in Japan, which could further our understanding of the matter-antimatter asymmetry in the universe. Both experiments have a wide scientific programme studying atmospheric neutrinos, neutrinos from supernovae and increasing the sensitivity to detection of proton decay. The different technologies of the two experiments give powerful arguments for both approaches, although it is likely that UK groups will focus on one of the two following the current R&D phase.

Advanced Capabilities in Nuclear Physics
Estimated capital cost: £10-15m
Estimated operational costs: Subject to detailed business case
Delivery partners: RCUK, US DOE, CERN

STFC funds an active experimental and theoretical nuclear physics programme, which is dependent on its great success at winning time competitively at a wide range of international facilities. There are three near term opportunities to collaborate in the construction of new, or upgrade of existing, facilities that will give the UK continued access to world leading capabilities:

  • Upgrades of the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility in the US will double the accelerator energy to address fundamental questions on how quarks acquire mass. This upgrade will include the provision of new experimental equipment to benefit from the increased accelerator energy.
  • ALICE (A Large Ion Collider Experiment) is a heavy ion detector at the Large Hadron Collider, designed to address the physics of strongly interacting matter using nucleus-nucleus collisions. It is preparing for a major upgrade, both to the detector and the associated software and computing, to take advantage of the increased luminosity from the LHC upgrade planned for 2018-19.
  • Exploitation of the heavy ion storage ring at the ISOLDE (Isotope mass Separator On-line facility) accelerator at CERN will enable the study of a range of radioactive nuclei to unrivalled energy resolution and sensitivity.

In each case the UK research would focus on areas of expertise, such as sensor and electronics design, mechanical and cooling design and data processing.