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Exploring the universe

The UK is very strongly involved in ‘outwards-looking’ missions whose goals are to answer questions about the origin and history of the Universe; the nature of our Solar System; and how our own star, the Sun, affects us here on Earth.

Light Echoes From Red Supergiant Star V838 Monocerotis. NASA, ESA and H.E. Bond
Light Echoes From Red Supergiant Star V838 Monocerotis.
NASA, ESA and H.E. Bond

These questions are tackled using a fleet of spacecraft which includes astrophysics telescopes such as Herschel and XMM-Newton, solar observatories such as SOHO and STEREO and interplanetary probes such as Venus Express and Rosetta. The technology required includes advanced detectors, propulsion, software and operations – and the UK space sector is skilled in all of these areas.

The UK has a proud record in exploring space having made major scientific advances in the study of the high energy Universe, star and galaxy formation and in cosmology as well as in understanding the nature of the Sun and its interaction with Earth, the planets and interplanetary space. UK-built instruments have travelled to comets, moons and planets in the Solar System, and formed the core of many world-leading observatory-class facilities exploring the Universe from unique vantage points above the Earth’s atmosphere.

The tools and techniques needed for the scientific exploration of the Universe are always at the leading edge of what humans can imagine and build. This is but one reason why the UK Space Agency places space science and exploration at the heart of our space programme. The UK Space Agency funds the construction of instruments carried by scientific missions as well as the spacecraft that carry them. Researchers in universities – both experienced professors and young scientists starting their careers – determine the objectives of the missions and then use the results that they deliver. In this ‘scientific exploitation’ work, they are financially supported by their institutions and via grant support from the Science and Technologies Funding Council (STFC). The UK performs exceptionally strongly in space science and is ranked second in the world to the US.

What is the difference between space science and space exploration?

Space science is undertaken primarily to answer scientific questions in three broad areas of science; space-based astronomy of our Galaxy and the Universe beyond; the study of the Sun and its relationship with the Earth; and the study of the planets, asteroids and comets in our Solar System. With few exceptions, space science employs robotic (that is, un-crewed) spacecraft. They are very sophisticated discovery machines, individually specified to meet exacting specifications developed in cooperation between scientists and industry.

Key questions being addressed include: what is the origin, evolution and future of the Universe; how does our Sun work; how did the Solar System form; what were the conditions that brought about life on Earth; and is there life elsewhere is our Solar System, Galaxy or Universe?

Space exploration is defined as the exploration using both robotic and human means of planetary destinations upon which humans could one day live and work. At present, most experts think that the feasible destinations for space exploration are restricted to the Moon, Mars and certain asteroids. It is at present hard to conceive of human missions to Jupiter, Saturn or beyond owing to the formidable challenges of providing power, food and water, long term protection from the radiation environment of deep space, and propulsion to make the missions possible within a reasonable time. The European Mars exploration programme has now been expanded to become a long-term collaboration with NASA.

The reasons for undertaking space exploration can involve scientific, technological, commercial and inspirational goals. Space exploration also contributes to international stability by encouraging many nations to work together

The science goals in exploration (e.g. the solar system’s history, geology, conditions and distribution of life) overlap with ‘pure’ space science, but wider goals may include applied science such as the behaviour of humans in extreme environments and the development of life support systems that minimise the use of resources.

In the longer term, commercial goals of space exploration may include exploitation of mineral resources (perhaps for rocket propellant production or titanium metal production) or the provision of transportation and telecommunication services to both the public and private sectors.

What is Microgravity Science ?

As well as looking down from space (Earth observation science) and looking outwards (space science and exploration), there is a different type of research that can be carried out in space. This is loosely called ‘microgravity’ or ‘space environments’ science, and just means science that exploits the effects of the space environment – primarily ‘weightlessness’ or microgravity, but also extreme radiation, vacuum, isolation and other stressors – that can be obtained continuously on-board spacecraft such as the International Space Station, but also temporarily on sounding rockets or other space analogue platforms on the ground.

Space environments make possible a range of basic and applied science. This can include medical and biological research – such as why humans lose calcium from their bones when in space, and how to counteract this – and the behaviour of materials when melted in the absence of weight, which for instance might allow purer alloys to be created for use in jet engines. In November 2012, the UK Space Agency joined ESA’s programme of microgravity science, known as ELIPS (European Life and Physical Sciences) and the ISS utilisation programme, which looks after experiments undertaken on the International Space Station. We work closely with UK researchers, the European Space Agency and the UK Research Councils to coordinate management of this exciting site for science. For more detail on our involvement visit the microgravity page within our missions and programmes sections.

Which space science missions is the UK Space Agency already involved in?

The UK is involved in a comprehensive set of operational space science and exploration missions via bilateral cooperation or through funding of ESA. These spacecraft have all been launched and are successfully delivering data, some for many years: Swift, Hinode, STEREO, Hubble Space Telescope, Cluster, SOHO, Cassini, XMM-Newton, Integral, Rosetta, Mars Express, Venus Express, Herschel and Planck.

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The UK Space Agency

The UK Space Agency is at the heart of UK efforts to explore and benefit from space.

The UK's thriving space sector contributes £9.1 billion a year to the UK economy and directly employs 28,900 with an average growth rate of almost 7.5%. (The Size and Health of the UK Space Sector 2010/11, preliminary survey results.)

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