Archive for March 23, 2010

Spazio Commerciale

Posted in Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on March 23, 2010 by telescoper

So here we are then. The United Kingdom has its own brand new Space Agency, courtesy of Lords Mandelson and Drayson (or Peter and Paul as they’re known to their fans). It was launched today at a glitzy do in Westminster attended by everyone who’s anyone in space science, which obviously doesn’t include me. There’s even a new logo.

According to the BBC, the new agency will be “muscular”, but I’m not really sure what that means. Perhaps brains might be more useful than brawn in this context (unless it’s Werner Von, geddit?) In fact I’m not at all sure what the new agency is about at all. The UK is already part of the European Space Agency (ESA) and a big slice of the new agency’s budget will presumably be eaten up by the ESA subscription. Much of what we do in space exploration and astronomy is dictated by decisions at the ESA level so I don’t think the new UK Agency will have much impact on that. On the other hand, the only current UK space agency is the British National Space Centre (BNSC), which is an organisation notable only for its irrelevance. I’m not even sure whether it exists at all as anything other than a logo and an accommodation address above a chip shop in Swindon.

It’s somewhat easier to see what the new UK Space Agency isn’t about. The accompanying press release doesn’t mention astronomy at all, so it’s clearly not going to help us lowly scientists who would like to use space observatories to do interesting science. It seems that it is primarily aimed at commercial space activities, and the science bit will continue to be managed mismanaged by the Science and Technology Facilities Council.

I’ve got nothing against the commercial exploitation of space, in principle, although it did provoke my feeble attempt at an Italian joke in the title of this post. The French, Germans and Italians spend much more than we do and this is obviously an area of great potential growth. I don’t object to the government using public money to help the space sector grow, either. In principle. The problem is that in these tough times the money has to be taken from somewhere else in the budget. Many of us were still hoping that the government might intervene to reverse the awful cuts we’ve suffered in physics and astronomy recently, but hiving space science off into a separate pot will probably make life even tougher for those of us left with the rump of STFC. I fear it means even less money in future going into fundamental science, and our decline is therefore set to accelerate even further.

There have always been tensions within the astronomy and space science community. Space exploration has scored many recent triumphs – such as the joint ESA-NASA Cassini-Huygens probe – but there are always difficult questions about the scientific value for money involved in sending things pottering around our backyard in the  solar system compared to, e.g., building observatories (either in space or on the ground) that can see things across the other side of the Universe. It’s difficult to see what the implications of the new agency are for this, but it seems likelyto me  that increasing amounts of public money will go on exploration at the expense of observation. I’m biased, of course, but I think there’s a lot more interesting science in the distant universe than there is nearby. In fact there’s more of everything further away than there is nearby! We may end up killing off ground-based astronomy in order to put a British flag on the Moon. That would be very sad.

But maybe this is too pessimistic. We don’t know yet how things will be divvied up between the new agency and the old STFC. Will there be any science  in UK Space, or will it be entirely commercial? Perhaps new missions and experiments will be funded through that route while exploitation continues to be  (under)funded by STFC?

Or maybe, since the new agency comes into existence on 1st April 2010, it’s all just an elaborate joke?

And while I’m being facetious, I wonder how many of you are thinking that the new logo looks like it was taken from the opening credits of Dad’s Army? I wonder if that choice was awfully wise, Captain Mainwaring?

STFC Chief Executive Keith Mason is very keen on the new outfit and is looking forward to working with it.  I know what Private Frazer would have said. We’re doomed.

PS. Andy Lawrence was there, and invites you to pump him  in the debriefing room over at the e-astronomer.

PPS. The new agency has now got a wikipedia page. It says there that the space agency will take over responsibility for space technology and instrumentation funding from other research councils. Presumably exploitation of space missions will either remain the responsibility of STFC or there won’t be any at all, which may amount to the same thing.

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