Archive for UK Space Agency

To Mars or not to Mars?

Posted in Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on April 17, 2010 by telescoper

Amongst  the news this week was President Obama’s announcement of a new space exploration policy for NASA. Out goes the Constellation program, including the Orion crewship, its Ares launch rocket, and the rest of the project’s Moon-bound architecture. Obama says NASA were on an unsustainable path, costing too much money and taking too long to develop. Instead he’s given them extra funds ($6 billion, modest by the standards of space exploration) and told them to find new ways of putting people into space. Obama’s particular goal is to send someone to Mars by the mid 2030s and return them safely to Earth. I think Obama’s plans have ruffled a few feathers, especially among those longing for a return to the Moon, but it seems to me to be both bold and intelligent. 

The European Space Agency also has a programme – called Aurora – which includes components involved with both robotic and human exploration. This programme is a kind of optional extra within the ESA budget and countries that wanted to join in were asked to pay an extra contribution. The UK opted in so now we pay a top-up on our subscription to ESA in order to participate. This will be one of the things that transfers to the new UK Space Agency, when it’s up and running properly, from the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC).

Thus far the UK policy has been not to get involved in human space exploration. There are a lot of reasons behind that, but one of the most important is sheer cost. Space exploration is expensive by its very nature, but involving human beings creates enormous extra costs connected with keeping them alive and keeping them safe while they are in space. Since our national expenditure on space exploration has largely been channelled through STFC (or its predecessor PPARC) where it has had to compete for funds with “pure” science activities in the areas of particle physics and astronomy (and, more recently, nuclear physics).

I think the scientific argument against funding human exploration has always been as follows. There aren’t many things that people could do on Mars that a robot couldn’t – here I’m talking just about scientific experiments and the like. Human space exploration is much more expensive than the robotic variety. The scientific value for money is consequently much higher for robotic missions ergo, since money is tight, we don’t do human space exploration. Plus, we couldn’t afford it anyway…

The other factor is that there aren’t many feasible targets for manned spaceflight in the first place. The Moon and Mars are basically it. Other objects in the solar system are either too distant or too inhospitable (or both) to be considered. Unmanned probes haven’t all been successful, but some certainly have paid off enormously in scientific terms. I give the Cassini-Huygens mission to Saturn (and its extraordinary moon Titan) as an example that has turned out, in my opinion, to be nothing short of sensational. The images of Titan’s surface sent back by Huygens were gobsmackingly amazing, for instance.

Before going on let me point out that I’m a cosmologist, not a planetary scientist. There’s a tendency among scientists to think that their own field is more important than the others with which it has to compete for funding. It’s perfectly natural that someone working on galaxy formation should find galaxies more interesting than planets, and vice-versa. We all pick what we want to work on, and obviously we pick what interests us most.  But any scientist worth his/her salt should have enough of a grasp of the big picture to recognize outstanding work in disciplines other than their own.  I don’t want anyone to think that the following comments are intended to suggest that there isn’t excellent work going on in the UK and rest of the world in the field of planetary exploration.

I do think, however, that there is a big difference in character between fundamental science (especially particle physics and cosmology) and planetary exploration. In fundamental physics we are attempting to uncover the nature of basic constituents of the universe and the general laws that govern the structure of matter and how it interacts and evolves – in other words, its scope is (or at least tries to be) universal. It’s certainly this aspect – trying to unravel an enormous cosmic puzzle – that drew me into cosmology. By contrast, the study of a particular planet – even a fascinating one, such as Saturn with all the beautiful orbital dynamics going on in its ring system – lacks this aspect of universality. That’s why cosmology interests me more than planetary exploration does. This is nothing more than a statement of personal interest.

Having said that – and pointing out  again that I’m no particular expert on the Solar System – I don’t find the Moon and Mars very  interesting from a scientific point of view compared with, say,  the outer planets which I find fascinating. Others – a great many others, in fact – obviously do see a lot of interest in Mars. I’m not at all convinced about the scientific merit of some other space probes either, especially the planned Mercury orbiter BepiColombo. But there we are. We can’t all expect to agree on everything. What I’m trying to say, though, is at the moment these different types of activity are funded from the same pot. In order to draw up an order of priority, STFC has to compare apples with oranges with predictably bizarre outcomes.

Moreover, space exploration – especially human space exploration – isn’t just about science. There are definite commercial opporunities in space, in both short and long term.  Space missions often  provide results that are fairly easily accessible to non-scientists, so has considerable popular appeal as well as inspiring young people to take up science and engineering subjects. It has immense cultural impact too, altering the way we think about ourselves and our place in the Universe. But these aren’t unique to space exploration. Particle physics and astronomy do this too.

 But the overriding factor is the politics. When NASA put a man on the Moon 40 years ago, it was never about science – it was a political statement made right at the height of the Cold War. We no longer have a Cold War, but nations still feel the need to show off to each other. It’s called national pride. Politicians know how this works, and how it can turn into votes…

So we shouldn’t think of the plan to put a man on Mars as being primarily a scientific thing anyway. I’m quite comfortable with that.  My worry – if the UK decides to take part in manned Mars exploration – is that the money will come from the already dwindling pot allocated to fundamental science. Particle physics and astronomy research in the UK is on the ropes after the recent devastating cuts. Any more blows like this and we’ll be on the floor. I’m deeply worried that far worse is already on the way – a combination of public spending cuts after the general election and political directives to devote more to space exploration.

The new UK Space Agency could be either a hero or a villain, and I don’t know how it will turn out. On the one hand, the creation of this organization may prevent the fundamental sciences from being squeezed further by expensive space projects. In this way it might represent a recognition of the different characteristics I talked about above. The industrial and commercial aspects of space exploration are present in the new outfit too.  On the other hand, the result of hiving off the “glamorous” space parts of STFC may lead to further cuts in what is left behind. I’m also nervous about the future relationship between UKSA and STFC, especially the extent to which the former can demand research grant funding from the latter.

I’m sorry this has been such a long and rambling post, but this has been on my mind for quite some time and I wanted at last to put something together about it. I could summarise what I’m saying as follows:

  •  I’m not convinced about the scientific case for Mars exploration – particularly if it involves manned missions
  • BUT it’s not my field so it’s not my decision to make
  • AND there’s more to Mars than science anyway
  • SO by all means do it if there’s a will
  • BUT for heavens sake don’t pay for it by killing off the rest of astronomy

This is something that I’d be genuinely interested in hearing other views on. What is stated above is my opinion and is not intended to be representative of anyone, but I’d be very interested in hearing other views through the comments box.

The Stitch-up Continues…

Posted in Science Politics with tags , , , , on April 1, 2010 by telescoper

Interesting news from the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC). Following the retirement of Professor Mike Edmonds from his post of Professor of Astronomy at Cardiff University – enabling yours truly to take his office! – he decided to resign his position on STFC Council. Yesterday, STFC announced that he would be replaced on its highest-level governing body, not with one person but with three, taking the membership of the Council to 12.

The new trio consists of  Mr Will Whitehorn (President of Virgin Galactic), Dr Michael Healy (President of the navigation business division of Astrium), and Mrs Gill Ball (Finance Director at the University of Birmingham). Given the catastrophic shambles of STFC’s current financial situation, the last appointment seems to make good sense. On the other hand, what on Earth is going on with the first two?

The new UK Space Agency came into existence today, 1st April 2010 – no joke. This is supposed to take overall control of all our national space activity, including commercial ventures as well as those parts (such as the subscription to the European Space Agency and funding for space instrumentation) previously under the control of STFC. Since space has now been hived off into another organisation altogether, why does  STFC now have  two commercial space gurus added to its Council?  The only explanation I can think of is that the STFC Executive is going to focus even further on space exploration rather than on basic research. These appointments were made by the Science Minister, Lord Drayson, who was the driving force behind the creation of the new UK Space Agency and they strongly suggest that he wants the emphasis within STFC to move in the direction of space exploration, to the likely detriment of the rest of science.  The implications for the future of observational astronomy and particle physics are deeply worrying.

Even more worryingly for those of us involved in basic research, note that one of the few scientists on Council has been replaced by three people whose interests lie elsewhere. In fact the number of independent scientists on Council has thus been reduced from 5 to 4. You can draw your own conclusions about what this means for the future of pure science in the rump of STFC…

Other interesting news this week is that the government has conjured up £100 million for the Diamond Light Source. I don’t want for one moment to give the impression that in the slightest bit negative about this facility or the new investment in it. It is immensely valuable for research across a  wide spectrum of scientific disciplines, and I was very glad to hear of the new investment. The extra funds will enable it to increase the number of beamlines from 10 to 32 which will represent a huge increase in its productivity.

But, while the cash injection for the Diamond Light Source is clearly to be applauded, it does provide a contrast with other areas within STFC’s remit  whose research budgets have been pared to the bone. In the last grant round, for example, one-third of all the astronomy rolling grants (6 out of 18)  up for renewal this year have been axed, and the others cut back severely. All the evidence suggests that there is no interest in reversing  the cuts in the STFC management, and that they will actually get very much worse over the next few years.

Since STFC blundered into financial meltdown in 2007, there have been two main theories as to what happened; remember that this was before the Credit Crunch took hold, so the black hole in STFC’s initial budget was nothing to do with the subsequent recession. One was that the STFC Management made a mess of their submission to the Comprehensive Spending Review and that it was all down to ineptitude. The other theory is that there was a definite plan at a high political level – probably in the Treasury – to rein back expenditure on fundamental research in favour of more “applied” disciplines. The shortfall in STFC’s finances was thus manufactured to achieve precisely what it has achieved. Depending on which of these theories you believe (if either), then the STFC Chief Executive is cast either as a bumbling incompetent or as a willing stooge of the Whitehall mandarins (although to be fair the two are not mutually exclusive).  The more the sorry saga of STFC pans out, the more I believe it was all a deliberate stitch-up. I think the most recent developments corroborate my view in depressingly convincing fashion.

STFC came into the world in 2007 with an estimated budget shortfall of £80 million. Had the £100 million I mentioned above appeared sooner, and had it gone into STFC’s general budget rather than being, as it is, ring-fenced for the Diamond Light Source then the carnage inflicted on science research could have been avoided. Instead, STFC squeezed its research grant line until the pips squeaked. Now that they’ve done this job, and got away with relatively little organized opposition from the scientific community, suddenly the money appears. It looks to me like the budget deficit was engineered to achieve precisely the outcome that has occurred.

I predict that after the election, the STFC budget will be slashed once more and that astronomy and particle physics research will again bear the brunt as STFC increasingly focusses on space exploration. The exodus of talented scientists from Britain that has already started and is sure to accelerate over the next year or two will take decades to reverse. It’s time for those responsible to come clean.

An early draft of the UK Space Agency logo

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , on March 29, 2010 by telescoper

Alternative Logo for UKSA

Posted in Science Politics with tags on March 27, 2010 by telescoper

As you all know, this past week saw the launch of the new UK Space Agency amid much fuss and fanfares. This occasion allowed the government to trumpet the creation of the new organization as a success story in the media and thus draw attention away from the continuing devastation visited on scientific research in astronomy and space science in the United Kingdom.

I’m not the only one to have expressed reservations about the quality of the new outfit’s logo which, though clearly intended to present a thrusting, dynamic, reach-for-the-skies image, ends up looking more like something from Dad’s Army. Apparently it cost £10,000 – surprisingly cheap by the standards of graphic designers these days – which perhaps explains why it isn’t very good, although even expensive ones can be rubbish too.

In order to improve the public profile of the fledgling organisation, and out of my own deep sense of public spiritedness, I’ve decided, at no expense to the taxpayer, to commission my own alternative logo by a highly skilled graphic designer of my acquaintance. I’m proud to be able to unveil it here. I think it conveys more accurately the nature of the new agency.

The broad coloured swathe represents the red tape involved in creating yet another new quango and reorganising everything else that relates to it. This leads initially to a period of increased paperwork presenting the appearance of greater activity until, shortly after the next election, everyone realises it is achieving nothing at all, its funds are cut (along with everything else), and, overwhelmed by the weight of its own bureaucracy,  it comes crashing back to Earth.

Badges featuring the new logo can be purchased from me, at the modest price of £74.99 each.

Space without Physics…

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on March 24, 2010 by telescoper

I’m indebted to a colleague (Annabel Cartwright) for sending me this (coincidentally topical) sample question, illustrating the quality of a modern British school science examination.

Since it’s now clear  that there is no room for science in the new era of the UK Space Agency, I suppose we should get used to the removal of science from other things too. Starting with science exams.

This question is taken from a GCSE Physics examination.

Some people think that governments spend too much money on space research.

Which ONE of the following statements is true?

  1. Science can tell us what the planets are made of, and whether they ought to be explored.
  2. Science can tell us what the planets are made of, but not whether they ought to be explored.
  3. Science cannot tell us what the planets are made of but can tell us whether they ought to be explored.
  4. Science cannot tell us what the planets are made of, nor whether they ought to be explored.

Apparently one (and only one) answer is correct. Any offers?