Space Science - Unveiling the Universe. (the Physics of the Universe)

By Sadlier, Jim | New Statesman (1996), May 20, 2002 | Go to article overview
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Space Science - Unveiling the Universe. (the Physics of the Universe)

Sadlier, Jim, New Statesman (1996)

What is the origin of our universe? How did it evolve? Is there life elsewhere? Such questions have perplexed mankind for the last two millennia. Now space science, which is only four decades old, is on the verge of providing the answers.

Space science is technologically extremely demanding and relatively expensive. It can work only through partnership with industry. It depends on international collaboration, but science is inherently competitive. There are no prizes for being second in the race for discovery. The European Space Agency (ESA) exists to enable Europe to have an independent capability to compete with NASA, even when the cost of some large-scale space missions sometimes requires them to collaborate.

As a member of the ESA, the UK space science community, working with the UK space industry, has been an intellectual leader in space exploration and has had success in driving the ESA agenda. But the UK is also opportunistic. It is always on the lookout to design space missions with the Americans or Japanese, when such joint ventures will deliver specific UK science goals quicker or more cost-effectively.

This two-pronged strategy has worked well in the past, and the UK has an outstanding track record both in science discovery and in delivering the cutting-edge technologies which push back the boundaries of what is possible in space.

So what are the recent achievements and new opportunities?

Our violent universe

Last year, the ESA launched its largest scientific spacecraft -- the X-ray Multi-Mirror satellite -- which has been renamed the Isaac Newton Observatory (XMM-Newton Observatory), a tribute to the UK's pioneering tradition and expertise in X-ray astronomy and an acknowledgement of the major British involvement in the spacecraft.

Scientists and engineers in British universities, in partnership with several UK companies, built several critical instruments for the mission, creating new jobs in high-technology areas.

XMM-Newton is a technological marvel. It will revolutionise the study of X-rays emitted by stars and galaxies by collecting more X-rays per hour than any other previous satellite. Quite simply, it is the most sensitive-X-ray space telescope ever built.

Earth's cosmic battle zone

Planet Earth is surrounded by a raging battle zone that begins only a few hundred kilometres above our heads, and yet most of us are totally oblivious to the fact.

Our natural defence from this onslaught is Earth's magnetosphere -- an invisible bubble -- surrounding our entire planet. Solar particles (known as the Solar Wind) charge outwards from the sun at supersonic speeds, constantly bombarding this protective bubble--some breakthrough, resulting in the spectacular Aurora Borealis and magnetic storms that can knock out power and communication systems on Earth as well as on satellites.

We need to understand fully the dynamics of the sun-Earth interactions in order to protect our communication and navigation satellites and Earth-based power and communication systems more effectively.

Now British scientists are beginning to understand this turbulent war zone by analysing the scientific data received from the four Cluster spacecraft orbiting between Earth and the sun.

UK space science groups have provided three of the 11 instruments on board each of the four Cluster spacecraft, and the European Science Operations Centre is located in Oxfordshire, indicating the UK's expertise in space science and the central role it plays in Europe.

This is the first time in the history of space exploration that four identical spacecraft have flown in formation to explore Earth's magnetosphere.

Space-time and gravitational waves -- a fundamentally new tool for exploring the universe

Einstein predicted gravitational waves, but as yet no one has detected them, simply because they are so incredibly small.

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