Written evidence submitted by the UCL Department of Space and Climate Physics

(SPA0059)

 

UCL’s Department of Space and Climate Physics hosts the Mullard Space Science Laboratory (MSSL), which is the UK’s largest university space science group consisting of around 200 people. MSSL has been at the forefront of cutting-edge space research and space technology for over 50 years and the laboratory’s research programme covers many aspects of space research from understanding the Sun and its interaction with the planets, to understanding galaxies and the matter that makes up the universe, to the extreme environment around black holes. To enable our research programme, we build and operate space hardware that is flown onboard multinational space missions. We also operate state-of-the-art test facilities for ground and space-based technology. Our education programme offers a range of taught post-graduate courses in space science and technology, technology management, complex projects and systems engineering management. Applications for our space science and technology programme have doubled in the last two years, indicating the increased demand from students wishing to enter space related fields. We also offer a range of PhD degree opportunities. Our public engagement programme directly reaches over 17,000 people per year and millions more are reached through our work with broadcast and written media. MSSL’s extensive experience and rich space heritage motivates this submission of evidence. As a space laboratory, we have over 50 years' continuous experience that began at the start of the UK space programme. Our partnerships and interactions reach beyond academia to include space agencies and other international bodies, policy makers and the general public. We therefore can offer expert input to this inquiry, informed by our long-term experience and our collaboration with many and varied UK space stakeholders.

 

The UK has played a leading role throughout the space era and has a rich heritage in space science and instrumentation, with the first research being conducted using experiments carried on a sounding rocket in 1957, the same year that Sputnik 1 launched. Funding policy at the time meant that the UK only ever launched one national satellite on a national launcher (the Prospero satellite that was launched in 1971) but the decision to stop the national launch programme led to a focus on the development of innovative instrumentation, leading to the UK quickly becoming the ‘partner of choice’ for international collaboration. A position that the UK has maintained for decades. In 1962, the Ariel-1 satellite was launched by NASA as the world’s first international satellite with all onboard instrumentation provided by the UK. Since then, the UK has provided instrumentation (and therefore held Principal Investigator roles) on major international missions such as Solar Maximum Mission (launched 1980, NASA-led), SOHO (launched 1985, ESA-led), Mars-96 (launched 1996, Russian-led), Double Star (China-led), Hinode (launched 2006, Japanese-led), Gaia (launched 2013 ESA-led) and Solar Orbiter (launched 2020, ESA-led) This broad involvement reflects the breadth of ambition and capability of the UK. The UK was a founder member of the European Space Research Organisation in 1964, which evolved to become the European Space Agency in 1975.

Based on this extensive experience in experimental and instrumental space science, the UK is well placed to be a global space power. Future prospects are strong if the UK (at least) maintains its current role in ESA, which provides a strong route to leadership in mission conception and development and provides a route for participation in ambitious missions that no one nation could individually support for example in planetary exploration and astrophysics. However, opportunities from UK leadership roles in ESA missions are only capitalised on if there is sufficient funding in place to enable exploitation in terms of research, further instrumentation/mission development and education.

In the past the UK has also played a successful leading role in bilateral missions that run along-side the ESA programme. There is significant demand for participation in bilaterals and as of today a list of opportunities compiled by the Space Academic Network (SPAN) that would be of strategic importance for the UK stands at 27. Bilateral mission involvement represents a cost-effective way for the UK to leverage its expertise and take on roles in world-leading missions by, for example, NASA, Japan and China, in areas in which the UK is strong but which are not covered by the ESA programme. In any UK space strategy, consideration of international collaboration outside of ESA, that may help develop links with countries that are of strategic interest to the UK government, must be included. If we do not support funding for bilateral missions our world-leading space hardware programme and key elements of UK’s world-leading research programme will be eroded and superseded by the growing programmes of other countries with sufficient investment to take on these roles.

Future prospects also include the opportunity to increase economic return on investment in space science UCL’s symbiotic relationship with Teledyne-e2v (T-e2v, formally e2v Ltd) being one example of past success. The UK bilateral role in the Japanese-led Hinode mission (launched in 2006) enabled MSSL to be the PI institute for the Extreme-ultraviolet Imaging Spectrometer onboard Hinode. The close collaboration between MSSL and T-e2v enabled T-e2v to supply the CCD detectors for the Hinode mission. MSSL’s collaboration with T-e2v has been long-running over nearly three decades and includes the development of detectors for the ESA missions Gaia, Euclid and PLATO missions. Indeed, through working collaboratively with T-e2v MSSL has helped the company secure major contracts with a total value of more than £70 million. Future prospects are supported by the Space Innovation and Growth Strategy (Space IGS) that aims to increase the UK’s share of the global space market. Close collaboration between industry and academia is fundamental to the Space IGS through the exchange of knowledge, skills and the development of instrumentation.

A subtle but important aspect of the UK as a world-leading space nation comes through the associated ‘soft-power’ that is developed through international collaborations. This enhances our international credibility and competitiveness, attracts international students and creates positive perceptions of the UK leading to international influence.  This applies to our work through ESA but also further afield due to our successful collaboration with Japan, China, and Russia etc.

We have world-leading strengths, but they must be fostered if we are to maintain our position. Success begets success, but it can be quickly lost and is currently being eroded after over a decade of decline in real-terms funding to UK space science. Our strengths in innovative instrumentation development and associated space science are under threat due to the narrow focus of our programme on ESA. Bilateral programmes provide more opportunity for innovation and fast turnaround of technology as well as laboratory research and development. In this way, future prospects are strong if bilaterals form part of UK strategy.

A future prospect that presents real opportunity is related to the changing approach to the use of space now taking place with a move toward exploiting opportunities provided by satellite constellations. The UK is ideally placed to capitalise on this approach not only through the provision of the satellites themselves, but also through instrumentation for example through hosted sensors. Indeed, radially new approaches such as constellations, as well as artificial intelligence and robotics will help place the UK space programme as a world leader.

It is notable and concerning that the UK’s investment in civil space is significantly below that (in terms of % GDP) of other countries with comparable GDP; Germany, Italy and France. In 2017, the UK spend amounted to £400million but over twice this amount was spent by Italy and over three times the amount by German and France. These countries also contribute more to European Space Agency programmes and therefore have a correspondingly greater return in terms of science, engineering and economic and societal impact.

 

Fundamental space science research output is a key UK strength. Citations of our research publications are second only to the US and our research programme and innovation produce a highly skilled workforce. Any drop in momentum of the space programme would have a correspondingly diminishing effect. Our highly successful space research programme is directly linked to mission and instrument lead roles held by UK PIs, which result in our research priorities being realised. The geographical distribution of those working in the sector spans from Cornwall to Scotland and there are complementary university research groups who effectively collaborate with each other and non-university organisations such as Airbus DS, Teledyne-e2v Ltd and Clyde Space. Indeed, strong links with industry are a key strength of the current sector, as is the bringing together of scientists and engineers either through being co-located or through close collaboration and team working approaches at institutions such as MSSL.Increasingly though, the UK is having to be selective in the missions its supports. Even across ESA’s space science programme engagement is patchy. The UK’s hardware contribution to the ATHENA mission, a world-beating X-ray astronomy mission was recently withdrawn when in the past the UK provided leading contributions to such missions. This decision resulted from both a lack of resource but also a lack of long-term investment in relevant technologies. Another relevant example is Solar C EUVST, an approved JAXA solar physics mission that builds on the heritage of Yohkoh and Hinode (JAXA, NASA, UK collaborations), in which the UK played a leading role in mission level science definition and the development of spectrometers for both missions. UKSA’s recent withdrawal from supporting a hardware contribution to Solar C not only jeopardises a long-term collaboration with JAXA and NASA, but also UK leadership in the mission science definition, and in the field of solar spectroscopy.

The current space science and instrumentation programme is based on innovations that took place in technology development and university laboratory facilities 10+ years ago. The impact of declining investment in these areas is already being felt and means future UK successes are in jeopardy. A national strategy with a clear roadmap to success is needed to ensure technology developments can pave the way to future success.

A major weakness is that we do not hold a national programme that provides a route to launch, related skills training opportunities and support for instrumentation innovation, development and testing. Other comparable nations have national programmes and the lack of a national programme prevents the UK from connecting together the many threads of its space science and engineering. A national programme is needed to support the UK’s instrumentation leadership.

The lack of funds available to support exploitation of missions with UK hardware involvement is a major weakness and results in our investment not being sufficiently capitalised on. Protected funds are needed to enable exploitation of UK mission investment and to maximise impact. For example, there is no protected funding for missions like Solar Orbiter despite the huge UK investment in the hardware (~£20 million funding from the UK Space Agency) and great exploitation potential.

The current division of responsibility for the science programme that is currently shared between STFC and the UKSA is a model that needs to evolve. The opinion of the community is that the so-called dual key aspect is not working. Technology development currently comes through the STFC Consolidated Grant science programme, which pits science and technology against each other. As a counter example, the UKSA Aurora programme (that aims to support planetary exploration) has exploitation as part of the programme, but other UKSA-funded missions have the exploitation within STFC’s remit splitting the areas of responsibility and hampering joined-up decision-making. Bringing exploitation into the UKSA grants would make science prioritisation decisions more consistent with the space programme. There exists an opportunity to improve the allocation of responsibilities across STFC and UKSA and ensure that the funding for development of novel space technologies does not fall through the gaps.

 

Space science is a long-term endeavour and funding that is commensurate with the timescale for mission development, launch and exploitation was a success of previous space strategies. It must be remembered that return on investment takes a decade. Comparisons with space strategies of other countries highlights the role and benefits of having a national programme that can address the national agenda. Participation in ESA, although of major importance, has its limitations. A national programme is needed to support the instrumentation leadership that the UK has had since the start of space exploration era.

Previous satellite innovations have been created by researchers and engineers drafting new ideas together, with involvement from industry where relevant. This is a model that has been successfully implemented at MSSL when funding allowed. Without funds for explorative research, concepts become incremental, rather than groundbreaking. Time and resources are needed to develop and test entirely new concepts before they can mature into well-designed missions; yet, by design of our funding structures such innovative collaborations are stifled.

 

In summary, a new UK space strategy should put focus on:

Timescales and scope: the new UK space strategy should support diversity of opportunity in the UK and be designed to enable projects that operate over different timescales with multi-year budgets in place to support long-term programmes. In addition, institutions must be able to hold contingency funds. The scope of the strategy should allow continued participate in the ESA space science programme that provides opportunities for UK leadership in missions we could never fund alone, to bilaterals that allow the UK to effectively tailor participation to its aspirations, to relatively fast turn-around small satellites and cubesat that enable quick response to science opportunities.

National satellite programme: small satellites and cubesats provide platforms with increasing science return, employed for low-cost technology demonstration and training of university and even high school students. The development of a national programme would also generate increased public engagement, and, if a national launch capability is developed, lead to joining a relatively small club of countries with such potential.

Relationship between STFC and UKSA: develop a relationship between STFC and UKSA that supports all aspects of space science research and enables clear prioritisation of areas for future mission involvement.

Funding for exploitation: the UK lacks prioritised funds for science exploitation related to our mission involvement, which is standard in, for example, US missions (e.g. the Hubble Space Telescope Allocation Committee explicitly provides funds for science exploitation and data mining, in addition to funding the Hubble and Einstein Fellows whose purpose is to ensure US leadership in space telescope-based research).

Diversity and education: the new UK space strategy must also include education (in terms of requisite skills development) and dissemination to a wide range of audiences. Creating a diverse work force that identifies and nurtures talent is the best way to ensure a world-leading space programme in the future.

Holistic view: the UK space Strategy needs to reach across government and take a holistic view with awareness of the ethical use of space. For example, whilst the All Party Parliamentary Group for Dark Skies is campaigning for policies to minimise light pollution, UK investment in OneWeb may see it contribute to the increasing degradation of our pristine skies being created by reflected light from satellites in low earth orbit.

 

(June 2021)