Written Evidence Submitted by the UKSA Space Exploration Advisory Committee (SEAC)
Introduction: Space Exploration Advisory Committee Input to House of Commons UK Space Strategy Call
The Space Exploration Advisory Committee SEAC provides UKSA with the UK’s academic, biomedical, engineering and industrial sectors’ advice on prioritisation and selection of space mission opportunities, and strategy with regard to ESA and bilateral programmes.
We are composed of 17 members reflecting the variety of the UK space science sector, with university and other research institute-based academics, and representatives from industrial companies. Our members have many years’ experience in development of space instrumentation, interpretation and terrestrial translational relevance of space science data from many types of astronomical, planetary and related missions and understanding of the biomedical challenges and risk mitigation strategies required to support human deep spaceflight. We understand the strengths and challenges that the UK space science sectors have and how these could be reflected in the new space strategy. Members of SEAC have also contributed extensively to high level science strategies in ESA’s Human Spaceflight and Exploration Directorate’s recent reformulation of strategic goals for life and physical sciences.
Our input to the House of Commons Consultation on Space Strategy does not represent an official UKSA viewpoint, but rather the views of SEAC members.
What are the prospects for the UK’s global position as a space nation, individually and through international partnerships
If the UK’s space science research activities are fully supported in a new space strategy then the prospects for its global position are bright. We have a world class combination of space science, technologies, data interpretation and life sciences research. However, we note that the UK currently invests less than other major European nations in space science programmes, raising questions about whether our strong position can be maintained.
Our participation in ESA programmes is essential as with our relatively limited resources we are able to leverage participation in more space missions than we could otherwise manage. Bilateral partnerships are also needed to fully exploit our potential to take leading technological and science roles in important space missions.
High-level commitments are being developed by international partners ESA, NASA and others to resume deep-space human exploration after a hiatus of nearly fifty years. Humans will return around and to the lunar surface in the next few years, with the establishment of a much more sustained human presence there compared to Apollo. There are long-term goal of humans in Martian orbit and the surface of the planet by the late 2030s or 2040s. These ambitions provide significant new opportunities for UK scientific research in terms of in situ resource utilisation and instrumentation, including for fundamental astronomy resources located on the Moon. Related life sciences research can inform risk mitigation for human deep spaceflight and better understand terrestrial disease pathophysiology, treatment and prevention. This ‘new science enabled by deep space human exploration’ paradigm is one which we recommend the UK makes as a strategic priority in line with our aspirations for science superpower status.
What are the strengths and weaknesses of the current UK space sector and research and innovation base
The UK’s space science research is largely driven by our universities. The central role universities have in combining space research, STEM education, and fostering new commercial partnerships has had many successes. Furthermore, UK universities have an essential role in rebalancing the economic development across the 4 countries and regions of the UK. Universities are critical parts of local economies in many otherwise economically underperforming regions.
However, as a result of continuing ‘flat cash’ and - particularly in the last 2 years – very late provision of settlements to UKRI and the UK Space Agency, the UK sector’s continued internationally leading position in space science is challenged. One example is the underrepresentation of a variety of space-related research topics in the strategic research areas defined by the research councils, challenging UK researchers to identify suitable funding sources. As an example, to enhance space engineering, EPSRC should be encouraged to work on space science topics and integrate more with the life sciences to optimise knowledge translation. The current absence of space engineering within EPSRC is anomalous and part of a fragmented approach to space research in the UK.
The flat cash and uncertain funding also compromises scientific exploitation of UK involvement in international missions.
UKRI, ESA and UKSA have a network of advisory bodies (including the Space Exploration Advisory Committee) which help ensure that selection of mission instruments and allocations of research funds are based on scientific merit and feasibility. We are concerned that a BEIS-driven space strategy, where UKSA is purely a delivery agency, will not have this detailed input from research scientists and engineers.
What lessons can be learned from the successes and failures of previous space strategies for the UK and the space strategies of other countries
A continuing challenge to the most effective exploitation of the UK’s space science potential is the gap between technology and instrument development and the exploitation of mission results derived from that work. The current ‘dual key’ arrangement between UKSA and UKRI (in particular STFC and life sciences under BBSRC/MRC), where technology development occurs under UKSA and science exploitation under STFC, has meant that the full benefit of instrument development has not been realised.
An example of a successful space programme that we wish to highlight, and which has combined long term support for space missions, associated technology and science exploitation, is the UKSA’s Aurora programme. Aurora is centred around planetary exploration and its provision of research grants, early career fellowships, over the last 10 years has allowed the UK to take internationally leading roles in Mars and other planetary exploration. The Aurora programme has been focussed on Mars surface exploration, and aligned to the ESA Programme (originally of the same name) that became the ExoMars missions. This is an example of a national programme which, in this case, supports Mars planetary exploration. The Aurora programme is currently within the UKSA’s remit rather than dual key as the rest of the science programme is. As such it is unusual, but it has demonstrated a successful approach which avoids the problems of dual key gaps between mission development and science exploitation. There may be scope to expand on this successful model.
What should be the aims and focus of a new UK Space Strategy
1. A series of long term programmes for combined space science research, technology and exploitation of mission results, perhaps based on the Aurora model discussed above, should be established to provide the platform for a globally leading space sector. These programmes – with both UKSA and UKRI guidance - would cover a range of astronomy and planetary exploration, life sciences, human exploration driven topics which require support from technology and instrument development through to return of data. They would furthermore provide support in the form of PDRA positions and fellowships to early career scientists. The provision of early career opportunities is essential to the growth and vigour of the UK space sector.
If funded above the current flat cash situation, these will help avoid challenges with the ‘dual key’ approach and provide the continuity needed to bring new ideas originating in our universities and other research organisations, through to successful exploitation of mission results and increasingly often commercialisation as well. This will also enhance the vibrant and growing STEM education-space research and commercial communities based in our universities across the UK.
2. The UK should participate in the challenges and translational benefits associated with human exploration of deep space, further integrating pre-existing world-class biomedical knowledge and analytical infrastructure, reflecting its aim to be a science superpower.
3. A new advisory body of space scientists and engineers should be established, under the remit of BEIS, to help guide the details and implementation of the new national space strategy.
Further Input from SEAC: We encourage the House of Commons committee to study successful national space science programmes such as Aurora and would be happy to provide further inputs on this and the other issues raised above.
Professor John Bridges, SEAC Chair, University of Leicester, Professor Damian Bailey, University of South Wales, Professor Martin Barstow, University of Leicester, Professor Neil Bowles, University of Oxford, Dr Katharina Brinkert, Warwick University, Mr Justin Byrne, Airbus UK, Mr Andrew Caldwell, Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, Professor Ian Crawford, Birkbeck, University of London, Professor David Cullen, Cranfield University, Dr Timothy Etheridge, University of Exeter, Dr Lydia Hallis, University of Glasgow, Dr Patrick Harkness, University of Glasgow, Professor Anu Ojha, National Space Academy, Dr Manish Patel, Open University, Professor Caroline Smith, Natural History Museum , Mr Paul Thompson, Qinetiq, Mr Roger Ward, Thales Alenia Space