Spatial Awareness

Maybe it’s just the fact that ‘Leicester’ doesn’t have the same ring to it as ‘Cape Canaveral’, but there’s something mildly incongruous about the small brown sign exhorting travellers on the M1 to visit the National Space Centre.


Although readers of The Engineer know better, it’s not difficult to imagine those unfamiliar with the stellar work of British space scientists glancing at the sign and snorting sarcastically, ‘National Space Centre! Yeah right…’


This attitude, of course, couldn’t be further away from the truth.


The UK is home to some of the world’s leading space scientists and engineers, who between them contribute around £7bn to the economy each year and have carved out a world-beating reputation for the development of satellites and robotic probes of all shapes and sizes.


It’s odd really, considering the quality of the work, and the capacity of space technology to fire the public imagination, that time and again The Engineer hears the same refrain from Britain’s space industry: ‘We don’t get the credit we deserve, graduates don’t know we exist, government should give us more support.’


Whatever the reasons for this, last week’s announcement that the European Space Agency (ESA) is to establish a research centre here in the UK is both understandable and welcome.


The new centre will be sited alongside the Diamond Synchrotron on Oxfordshire’s Harwell Innovation Campus, a hub of technical excellence that, with all due respect to the city of Leicester, carries perhaps a little more clout on the world’s scientific stage. 


Though the precise remit of the centre is yet to be fleshed out, it’s expected to build on those big areas of UK expertise; the development of robotic probes and landers, innovative power sources, and environmental monitoring using data from space.


It’s early days, and the centre won’t be up and running for a while yet, but when it does open its doors it will play a crucial role in helping our industry deliver on some of the aims of the government’s civil space strategy announced earlier this year and win a greater share of the global market in space technology.


In the process this potent symbol of UK space science could go a long way to helping our space industry, and that little brown sign on the M1, get the respect they deserve.


Jon Excell

Deputy Editor