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British Astronomy - Theory, Radio and Space Astronomy

In the 20th century astrophysics became more important in Britain than positional astronomy. Spectroscopy and stellar structure emerged as areas in which the new physics of quantum mechanics and quantum thermodynamics could be successfully deployed.  Cosmology became very strong—this is the period of Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington (1882-1944), E. A. Milne (1896-1950) and Sir James Jeans (1877-1946). Theoretical astronomy continues in Britain as an area of strength, for example in gravitational physics around Steven Hawking in the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics (DAMTP) in Cambridge, in calculations of the development of the structure of the universe in Cambridge, Durham, Edinburgh, Oxford, Portsmouth and London Universities [Imperial and UCL], amongst others, and in plasma physics as applied to the geosphere, the heliosphere and stellar astronomy in several universities.  There are powerful supercomputing facilities for use by all the UK theoretical astrophysics community at the UK Astrophysical Fluids Facility (UKAFF) based at Leicester.   Theory continues in Britain to be not only a way of understanding the universe but also a way of guiding the future direction of the observational programmes.

In mid-century a generation of young scientists (for example Sir Bernard Lovell (1913- ) and Sir Martin Ryle (1918-1984, Nobel Prize 1974)) returned to the universities (Manchester and Cambridge) from which, as young men, they had been recruited to work on radar in the Second World War.  They established radio astronomy in Britain, a subject of observational astronomy suited to its cloudy skies. The radio interferometers at Lord’s Bridge near Cambridge made all-sky radio surveys, establishing the evolutionary big bang theory of the universe, demolishing the steady-state theory produced by Sir Fred Hoyle (1915-2001) and his associates and discovering first quasars and then pulsars (Anthony Hewish (1924- ), Nobel Prize 1974). Pulsar research remains strong in Britain at Jodrell Bank.

The work of the Cambridge radio telescopes at Lord’s Bridge continues under the name of the Mullard Radio Astronomy Observatory (MRAO), with the Ryle Telescope, the Cosmic Anisotropy Telescope, the Cambridge Optical Aperture Synthesis Telescope, and the Arcminute Microkelvin Imager all deployed into sophisticated special projects on the cosmic microwave background, optical interferometry, the Sunyaev-Zeldovich effect etc.  Run by Manchester University at Jodrell Bank Observatory, the Lovell Telescope was for a time the largest fully-steerable dish for radio astronomy. Jodrell Bank Observatory participates in the European VLBI interferometer and is the centre of the MERLIN interferometer of six radio telescopes spread across England to provide radio maps at a resolution matched to the Hubble Space Telescope.  MERLIN (Multi-Element Radio Linked Interferometer Network) has produced beautifully intricate maps of gravitational lenses, supernova remnants in external galaxies and planetary nebulae.  The Lovell Telescope has been refurbished to become part of MERLIN. Cambridge and Manchester collaborate with the Instituto de Astrofisica de Canarias to operate the Very Small Array, named with characteristic British understatement.  It has been making a survey of the cosmic microwave background as observed from Teide in Tenerife.  The Cambridge, Manchester and Oxford radio astronomy groups have combined under the name UKSKADS to become the UK participation in design study for the projected Square Kilometre Array (SKA) radio telescope.  The Design Study is financed overall by a grant by the EU Framework Programme FP6 through the Netherlands Astron organisation and is being carried out in 29 institutes worldwide.  For the work that is to be carried out in the UK, the EU financing is being more than matched by the UK’s PPARC in part because of the commercially interesting development of computing that it will produce.

Meanwhile, space astronomy groups established themselves, at first in the universities of Birmingham, Leicester and London (University College and Imperial College), initially developing x-ray astronomy, solar astronomy and magnetospheric physics with sounding rockets and small British satellites, such as the Ariel and STRV series.    Space activity at University College moved out of London to the Mullard Space Science Laboratory (MSSL) in Surrey.   Additional to bilateral agreements to participate in the satellites of non-European countries, the space science programme in Britain is now focussed primarily on ESA’s Science Programme.  The European Space Agency (ESA) was formed in 1975, with its Science Programme to launch more powerful satellites containing astronomical telescopes and to explore not only geospace but also the Sun, the heliosphere and planets through in situ measurements, and this European partnership clearly provides far greater opportunities than the UK could provide on its own. The UK takes a high profile and active interest in ESA.  The UK provides not only its GDP share of the Science Programme budget but considerable instrumental and scientific support for the satellites.  As a result Britain has participated to a greater or lesser extent in most of ESA’s scientific satellites, including Cassini-Huygens, Cluster, Cos-B, Exosat, Giotto, Herschel, Hipparcos, HST, ISO, IUE, Lisa Pathfinder, Mars Express, Planck, Rosetta, Smart-1, SOHO, Ulysses and XMM.  No doubt this interest in the ESA programme will remain strong. 

The strongest interest in the UK in space astronomy is undoubtedly in the orbiting telescopes (X-ray and infra-red general purpose telescopes, as well as targeted telescopes like Planck), and the solar and heliospheric missions.  But because of the ESA programme, there has recently been a rise in interest in the UK in planetary exploration and astrobiology.  The community self-organises into the UK Planetary Forum and the Astrobiology Society of Britain (a media resource website of the UK Planetary Forum lists all the UK activity in these fields).  Planetary dynamics and planetary- and star-system formation has long been a field of interest to British theorists (e.g. at Queen Mary College University of London, Cardiff) and observers (e.g. at Cambridge, Manchester and numerous other groups), re-invigorated by the study of extrasolar planets (e.g. at St Andrews University).  It appears that the UK will participate if it can, not only in most of the high scientific quality planetary science and extrasolar planet missions of the future ESA Science Programme, but also in the ESA Aurora programme for planetary exploration, if it is continued and focuses on science. 

As a result of the broad science interests in the programme, space science activity has spread into other universities with astronomical interests, with space astronomy instrumentation being developed at Cardiff, Manchester and Southampton, and a large planetary science group developing at The Open University, supported by a broad spread of smaller groups elsewhere.  Space Engineering is taught and researched at Brunel, Cranfield, Glasgow, London, RAL, Sheffield, Southampton and Surrey universities.  Industrial interest in space science in the UK is confined to two prime contractors (Astrium and Surrey Satellite Technology (SSTL)) and many smaller specialist space industries, but no longer to rocket launchers.  UK Students for the Exploration and Development of Space (UKSEDS) is the UK branch of the international organisation, SEDS, dedicated to space education and space related issues.   Its website contains lists of space courses, research and industries in the UK, as well as general space topics. 
The UK Space Academic Network (UKSPAN) is an independent space community forum/lobby group of about 20 space-interested groups, including space astronomy hardware groups and some others with Earth Observation interests, and the NERC Earth Observation Institutes.  It makes representations to OSI, BNSC and Research Councils on behalf of its community.