What Has Space Ever Done for Us? (the Physics of the Universe)

By Mason, Keith | New Statesman (1996), May 20, 2002 | Go to article overview

What Has Space Ever Done for Us? (the Physics of the Universe)


Mason, Keith, New Statesman (1996)


Few people realise just how many products we encounter in everyday life owe their origins to space science: from the small explosive charge that activates the airbag in our cars, derived from technology developed to separate a rocket launcher's various propulsion stages, to baby pyjamas designed to help prevent cot deaths, based on the technology in an astronaut's training suit.

The UK space industry has gained a wealth of expertise in designing, building and communicating with satellites, and much of the technology employed is transferred to the commercial sector.

Technology transfer is one of the core principles of the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council. The PPARC, the UK's strategic science investment agency, operates a dedicated technology transfer unit that brings together academia and industry to exploit the commercial benefits and life-changing technologies. Its scientists work hand in hand with industry and government so that important new technologies are transferred to UK business.

Cutting-edge scientific research, such as that supported by the PPARC, pushes technology and engineering to their limits. Life-enhancing technology of this type is rarely, if ever, discovered by the private sector.

The University of Leicester's Space Research Centre, for example, has established a dedicated Bio-Imaging Unit to create a bridge between physicists and biologists in order to exploit advances in scientific space research. The unit, in conjunction with the Queen's Medical Centre, Nottingham, is investigating the commercial development of a sophisticated camera for visualising high-energy particles to be used in treating cancer. Leicester University first developed this technology for a special X-ray camera that is now flying on board the NASA Chandra satellite. The heart of the camera, an imager that is sensitive to beta particles as well as X-rays, would seem to be ideal for detecting radio labelled antibodies within tumour cells, particularly those associated with bladder and ovary cancer.

An astronomer from Southampton University has developed a compact and inexpensive camera for breast cancer screening. The camera was originally developed for investigating galaxies at the edge of the universe. It is now being commercially employed as a means of identifying the extent of breast cancer in patients -- without the need for intrusive surgery. This technology, derived from space science research, will lessen the trauma associated with investigative surgery, reducing costs to the NHS and providing a vital benefit to the one in 11 women in Britain who develops breast cancer at some point in their life.

Space technology, derived directly from hard scientific research, ranks alongside aeronautical engineering, computer applications and biomedical technology as an advanced industrial skill of the kind that the UK needs if we are to prosper. …

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