We have the technology

The UK space industry could provide life support technology, propulsion, remotely-operated robots and autonomous software systems for a future European- manned Mars mission, experts claimed last week.

Speaking at a public meeting held by the British National Space Centre, academics and representatives of the UK’s £2.9bn space industry said they had expertise in these areas and would be willing to provide the technology, should the government decide to participate fully in the European Space Agency’s Aurora programme.

The programme, which is still in its preparatory phase, is expected to dominate ESA’s work for the next 20-30 years, culminating in a possible manned flight to Mars. Science minister Lord Sainsbury has 14 months to decide whether to spend the additional £25m needed to fully join the programme without reducing spending on existing areas of UK space research.

Dr. Kevin Fong, chair of the UK’s space biomedical advisory committee, said there would be great benefits to the UK in joining the ESA programme, and the country has the specialist knowledge to contribute.

‘We have an established history in [life science] technology. Our universities were involved in the human element of the Apollo missions, conducting bone demineralisation studies. The UK could now provide portable life support systems and space suits. We have all the necessary technology.’

Dr. Mark Sims, a member of the Beagle 2 team, and Dr. David Parker, chair of the space science committee for the UK Space Industry committee, also championed UK technology at the meeting, which was held as part of the consultation process to help the government decide whether to join Aurora. Both outlined the UK’s expertise in remote operation, failure-safe software, engines, autonomous systems and robotic vehicles.

Dr. Rupert Soar, lecturer in mechanical and manufacturing engineering at LoughboroughUniversity, submitted a written contribution to the consultation, arguing that the UK could develop robots capable of constructing living quarters on the Moon or Mars. The robots would use local mineral resources to help build them, and would also maintain the astronauts’ base.

Despite the enthusiasm and readiness of UK space industrialists and researchers to contribute to the programme, senior government research officials warned offinancial and structural obstacles. government chief scientist Dr. David King said this year’s government spending review is likely to be tough.

Professor Ian Halliday, chief executive of the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council, said that any space research above 100km was considered astronomy, and as such PPARC would lobby the science minister for funds.

However, robotic planetary exploration missions are inherently multidisciplinary, and as a result do not fall under the remit of PPARC or any other single council, he said. To overcome this, the research councils are attempting to organise inter-council projects, and one, called Conditions for Life, is currently under discussion.