24 February 2017

How Britain can win the space race

By Kate Godfrey

It’s not just astronomers and research scientists who will have been cheering the discovery of seven new worlds this week. Mrs May and her government will be pretty excited too. For they too have been keeping a keen eye on celestial goings on.

Since she became Prime Minister, Mrs May has, with her Government been busily formulating policy that could put the UK, and more specifically the Midlands, at the head of the new space race. The discovery of the planets, by a project involving the University of Leicester, will have certainly helped that aim.

Sponsored and led by Nasa, and including academics from the Universities of Cambridge and Liege, the project was looking for exoplanets, the planets beyond our own solar system, that might  – just might – be able to support life. Incredibly, they think they may have found three.

Using Nasa’s Spitzer Space Telescope and the EU-funded, Very Large Telescope in North Chile, the team discovered the largest number of Earth-sized planets yet recorded; and with them, the three potentially habitable ones.

These seven planets are in the Trappist-1 system, just 40 light years away from Earth. At least six are comparable in size and temperature to the Earth and all were detected as they passed in front of their parent star, an ultracool dwarf.

Dips in the star’s light output caused when each of the seven planets passed in front of it allowed the astronomers to infer information about their sizes, compositions and orbits. It’s similar to the way Uranus and Neptune were discovered back in the 18th and 19th Centuries. But telescopes have come a long way since then.

Supervising the work for Leicester was Dr Matt Burleigh, Reader in Observational Astronomy and dedicated “exoplanet hunter”. It is thanks to academics like him that space-exploration in the not-so-exotic sounding British Midlands is making news across the world – and could put the new space cluster at the University of Leicester at the heart of the Government’s new space initiative.

Plans for Leicester build on the recent opening of the Institute for Space and Earth Observation, which brings together work on space and satellite technology, and include a new national centre interpreting the next generation of satellite and space-enabled data.

Draft legislation, to be set out later this year, will doubtless draw on that expertise. The legislation is to allow the launch of space satellites from the UK for the first time, and enable space ports to be built around the UK.  While most excitement will doubtless surround the possibility of space tourism, that isn’t the most important element of the announcement.

The key element is satellites. For even though the UK is a world-leader in satellite technology, it has to launch them from the US, India or other competitors. But that, though could be about to change.

As the Aviation Minister Lord Ahmad said when announcing the plan: “Our ambition is to allow for safe and competitive access to space from around the UK, so we remain at the forefront of a new commercial spaceage.” Grants will be offered to joint ventures of British launch companies and proposed spaceports, with a value of £10 million as part of the Government’s industrial strategy.

May is striving to redesign the national economy for a post-Brexit world, and is looking for areas of innovation that will offset the decline in more traditional industries. She’s landed on space as the answer.

This is perfect opportunity for the UK – along with all its experts and institutions – to position itself as a global centre for high-tech manufacturing. We could use the satellite technology we excel at as a bridge between the UK and the global markets about to open up to us.

The new space race is on.

Kate Godfrey is Head of Public Affairs at Leicester