A small step for Stevenage, a giant leap for mankind

The ESA Solar Orbiter
The ESA Solar Orbiter. (Photo: ESA. Click to enlarge)

British universities and industries are at the cutting edge of a unified global space race

Stevenage, we have a problem. And that problem is, it’s quite hard to take someone seriously when they say that Stevenage, the somewhat undistinguished Hertfordshire town between Letchworth and Welwyn Garden City, is going to be the next Cape Canaveral.

That is, however, what David Willetts, the science minister, wants to happen: “In the old days it was Cape Canaveral; in the future it will be Stevenage at the heart of the global space effort.” You can’t fault the man for ambition, at least. It’s easy to mock, rather as it would be if someone claimed that Milton Keynes was going to replace Florence as the world capital of fine art, or that Leamington Spa had plans to become the new Hollywood.

But Mr Willetts’s statement is not as ridiculous as it sounds. Stevenage may not have the glamorous image of Florida or Texas – or the wide open spaces suitable for rocket launches, for that matter – but it is actually one of several major British centres of space engineering and research. We’ll never quite have our own Cape Canaveral – as an astrobiologist friend of mine, Lewis Dartnell, said: “Britain won’t be launching its own rockets from a Cambridgeshire fen” – but British universities and industries are at the heart of a new, global space movement. Not a race, because that implies competition; space is now a cooperative venture.

Stevenage is a case in point: it’s known as “space city”, and around a quarter of the world’s satellites are built there, according to the local MP. It is the base for the company EADS-Astrium, an aerospace company which built the first British ballistic missiles – the “Blue Streak” – in the Fifties. Nowadays it employs 1,200 people, and builds scientific equipment for dozens of space missions.

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Those missions are not British ventures, though – they’re international ones. The Aeolus weather satellite, built by Astrium, is due to be launched by the European Space Agency (ESA) in 2015, and an Astrium Mars rover, currently nicknamed “Bruno”, is to head for the red planet in 2018, also on an ESA rocket. David Willetts himself has just come back from China, where he’s signed a space cooperation deal that will put British satellites on Chinese spacecraft.

It’s worth thinking about exactly what is involved in some of these missions, and just how cutting-edge the British science behind them is. “Bruno”, for instance, will be trundling around on a planet which – at the furthest point of the two worlds’ orbits – is 311 million miles away from Earth. It takes light more than 25 minutes to travel the distance: guiding the rover remotely, like a radio-controlled car, is out of the question. Instead, Bruno has to be a masterpiece of self-guided robotics: plotting a course across Mars’s sandy, rocky, boulder-dotted landscape, working out in advance which bits are passable and which are not. Earlier rovers were far less able to allow for on-the-move corrections, and so have to allow a much greater margin for error, which stops them from traversing really difficult terrain.

Another Astrium project, the ESA’s Solar Orbiter, will be a seven-year mission to take the closest-ever look at the Sun – inside the orbit of the planet Mercury, around 30 million miles from the star itself. The orbiter will have to deal with temperatures of up to 500C on the Sun-facing side, and about -100C on the dark side, while protecting its instruments from the fiery radiation and still using them to take measurements. And, as we described in The Daily Telegraph yesterday, British scientists, including some from the Open University, are also heavily involved in the first attempt to land a probe on a comet – the Rosetta mission will fly close to the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko and launch a small lander crammed with instruments on to the icy surface. These are huge engineering challenges; feats of extraordinary technical difficulty.

The ambitions don’t end there, though. One day in the next three decades, Mr Willetts says, we’ll have a British-led space mission which lands a human being on Mars. Whether that’s plausible is hard to know – after all, politicians can easily promise great things decades down the line, safe in the knowledge that they will be long retired by the time they fail to appear (although on a more optimistic note, a former British Army Air Corps officer, Major Tim Peake, was recently selected to fly to the International Space Station as the ESA representative, so British manned missions are not entirely far-fetched). Even so, Britain’s space industry is already worth £7.5 billion to our economy.

The trouble is that it is hard to imagine Capricorn One set on a commuter-belt industrial park. But that’s only a problem with our imagination. It might sound odd, but Stevenage does seem to be boldly going where none has gone before.

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