Building on Our Space Science Heritage. (the Physics of the Universe)

Article excerpt

Like all of my generation, I remember the mixture of threat and exhilaration which greeted the launch of Sputnik in 1957. As a first-year undergraduate, I measured the orbit from the roof of the Royal Observatory, Edinburgh. Eleven years later, Neil Armstrong walked on the moon.

Forty-five years on, space may have lost its initial frisson of newness. But as a scientist, I can only look back in wonder at what has been achieved technologically in space, building science laboratories which have changed radically our perceptions of the universe and our place in it, and creating a global communications and entertainment industry.

We can now observe the universe through X-rays using the great observatories XMM-Newton and Chandra. They study the most violent events in the universe around black holes. Soon the Planck-Herschel space observatory will measure in exquisite detail the photons which have reached us from the beginning of the universe. The joint American-European Hubble Space Telescope has revolutionised astronomy with its sharp, even pristine, pictures in normal light. Satellites like SOHO stare relentlessly at the sun with its gigantic magnetic storms. Others such as Cluster measure the effects of these storms as they impact on Earth's upper atmosphere, affecting communications and creating Aurora alike.

I hope this supplement will show that, for scientists, space is still a magical place in which there are unique intellectual and technological challenges to extend the boundaries of human knowledge, as well as continuing to deliver huge economic and social benefits, and that UK scientists working with the UK space industry can lead in exploiting some of these opportunities.

Three hundred years ago, Isaac Newton saw how gravity controls the sun and planets. In 1918, Einstein pulled this into his beautiful general theory of relativity, which has taunted quantum theorists ever since. He predicted that just as accelerating electrical charges radiate light or photons, so accelerating masses would radiate gravitational radiation. Given that the universe is driven by gravity, Newton foresaw that the clearest view of the universe would probably be through a gravitational wave telescope. Building such a telescope is now conceivable. Will it be the 21st century's analogue of Galileo's telescope?

On the surface of Earth, we struggle to build such a telescope. There are 300m to 3km systems across Europe and the United States. They will "hear" the first faint signals in gravitational radiation in the next five-ten years. The technology is a mixture of laser physics, mirror technologies and ingenuity of suspension. However, to see properly the gravitational universe, we need to move to space and construct five million kilometre scale systems positioning three satellites to micron accuracy. On the basis of a technological revolution, we can achieve a revolutionary view of the universe. Given the UK tradition of Newton, Eddington and Hawking and the current high technological skills resident in UK universities, the UK must surely play a big role in this major intellectual, experimental and technological challenge.

Sputnik opened up a new frontier in exploration as opposed to observation from afar. Should the UK be involved in the exploration of the planets? Again, given the history of exploration and adventure shown by our predecessors, it is perhaps surprising that the UK has not been more aggressive in this area.

The European Space Agency would like to start a new high-profile programme in planetary exploration. Beagle 2 has shown that, with ambition and enterprise, the UK can lead in developing the technology to explore the possible existence of life on Mars.

The UK is an important European player in space science. There are major opportunities all around. Can we support our scientists at a level where they can compete on a global scale, and enable them to match their giant predecessors who made the first 45 years of space such a breathtaking adventure? …