NAM 09: Could low-cost space missions keep astronomy aiming high?
Whether in the present so-called 'age of austerity' or more generous times, arguing for funds for space exploration can sometimes be hard and constrained budgets mean that some excellent scientific proposals never see the light of day. On Tuesday 19 April, in his presentation at the National Astronomy Meeting in Llandudno, Wales, Leicester University astronomer Professor Martin Barstow will argue that a solution could be found in the form of low-cost space missions with a price tag of £10-20m.
There is an enormous dichotomy in the costs of access to space using various methods. NASA, ESA and other space agencies have a range of satellite programmes providing mission opportunities that deliver several years of data, but with price-tags of £100M and upwards. Satellite mission opportunities occur typically at a rate of only one every 2-3 years. Therefore, responses to mission calls usually result in massive oversubscription factors and many projects simply never happen.
Sub-orbital programmes through sounding rockets are more frequent and allow scientific data to be obtained for a few million pounds. However they only deliver a few minutes observing time above the atmosphere, restricting the scientific goals that can be achieved. For a typical astronomy payload, observations are limited to the brightest targets, usually one in any flight, and re-flight opportunities are quickly exhausted. Balloon programmes offer longer duration flights, up to a few days, but are only suitable for gamma-ray, visible light or infra-red studies. X-ray, extreme-UV and UV wavelength radiation emitted by astronomical objects does not penetrate far enough into the atmosphere to be detectable by instruments on balloons.
Professor Barstow believes that there is an urgent need for the development of an intermediate class of mission that provides access to Low Earth Orbit (altitudes of between 160 and 2000 km) at a cost of £10M-20M, allowing a far greater number of missions than at present.
One method he proposes to deliver these lower cost space missions is to re-cycle proven sub-orbital instruments, eliminating a significant proportion of the usual development expenses, and up-rating support systems such as attitude control and power to operate for several months rather than a few minutes. The UK has considerable expertise in low cost satellite technologies, for example in the company Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd (SSTL) based in Guildford, England.
In his talk Professor Barstow will discuss one example of the type of instrument that could be flown at low cost, a high resolution extreme ultraviolet spectrograph (this disperses ultraviolet light from astronomical objects for analysis of properties such as temperature and composition) developed by his group. A spectrograph of this type has already flown successfully on board two sounding rocket missions. The instrument has a very simple and novel optical design delivering extraordinary efficiency compared to traditional approaches and in this case, a sensitivity greater than that of the NASA Chandra X-ray observatory is achieved in a package a fraction of the size.
Professor Barstow comments: "UK space scientists are world-leading and are particularly good at making a big impact from a small budget. Low-cost space missions are a great way to get this to happen and could be a real boost for UK astronomy."
Professor Martin Barstow
NAM 2011 Press Office (0900 – 1730 BST, 18-21 April only)
Dr Robert Massey
An image of a sounding rocket carrying an X-ray telescope is available from http://www.ras.org.uk/images/stories/NAM/2011/images/barstow%20-%20rocket%20-%20tuesday.jpg
Caption: A sounding rocket blasts off from White Sands Missile Range with a high efficiency X-ray telescope on board. Credit: NASA
Notes for editors
Bringing together around 500 astronomers and space scientists, the RAS National Astronomy Meeting 2011 (NAM 2011: http://www.ras.org.uk/nam-2011) will take place from 17-21 April in Venue Cymru (http://www.venuecymru.co.uk), Llandudno, Wales. The conference is held in conjunction with the UK Solar Physics (UKSP: http://www.uksolphys.org) and Magnetosphere Ionosphere and Solar-Terrestrial Physics (MIST: http://www.mist.ac.uk) meetings. NAM 2011 is principally sponsored by the RAS and the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC: http://www.stfc.ac.uk).
The Royal Astronomical Society
The Royal Astronomical Society (RAS: http://www.ras.org.uk), founded in 1820, encourages and promotes the study of astronomy, solar-system science, geophysics and closely related branches of science. The RAS organizes scientific meetings, publishes international research and review journals, recognizes outstanding achievements by the award of medals and prizes, maintains an extensive library, supports education through grants and outreach activities and represents UK astronomy nationally and internationally. Its more than 3500 members (Fellows), a third based overseas, include scientific researchers in universities, observatories and laboratories as well as historians of astronomy and others.
The Science and Technology Facilities Council
The Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC: http://www.stfc.ac.uk) ensures the UK retains its leading place on the world stage by delivering world-class science; accessing and hosting international facilities; developing innovative technologies; and increasing the socio-economic impact of its research through effective knowledge exchange. The Council has a broad science portfolio including Astronomy, Particle Astrophysics and Space Science. In the area of astronomy it funds the UK membership of international bodies such as the European Southern Observatory.
Venue Cymru (http://www.venuecymru.co.uk) is a purpose built conference centre and theatre with modern facilities for up to 2000 delegates. Located on the Llandudno promenade with stunning sea and mountain views; Venue Cymru comprises a stunning location, outstanding quality and exceptional value: the perfect conference package.