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Space Science and the Engines of Change. Keith Mason CEO UK Science & Technology Facilities Council. Astronomy as a change engine. Human kind is instinctively curious about the world and their place in it Astronomy, the oldest science, is accessible to all

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space science and the engines of change

Space Science and the Engines of Change

Keith Mason


UK Science & Technology Facilities Council

astronomy as a change engine
Astronomy as a change engine
  • Human kind is instinctively curious about the world and their place in it
  • Astronomy, the oldest science, is accessible to all
    • Discoveries change people’s perceptions of their place in the Universe and their relationship to each other
    • Generally a ‘non-threatening’ science
    • Astronomy as ‘entertainment’!
  • Astronomy Inspires!
    • People who are inspired can achieve things otherwise beyond them!
  • Drives technological capability
    • Wider benefit to society
  • Drivers not dissimilar to ‘exploration’!
way forward
Way forward
  • Best way to look forward is to extrapolate from the past
  • So how far have we come in the last 50 years?
  • What are the plans for the immediate future?
  • Where might that lead?
astronomy in 1957
Astronomy in 1957
  • Confined to ‘visible’ wavelengths and radio
    • Largest telescope 200in (5m) at Mt Palomar
    • Photographic plates rule!
    • Radio astronomy in its infancy – 250 ft fully-steerable Lovell telescope just completed
  • Debate between ‘big bang’ and ‘steady state’ cosmology
  • Origin of lunar craters – volcanic or impact?
  • Speculation about life on Mars, oceans on Venus
take care with experts
Take care with ‘experts’

“Space Travel is bunk”

Sir Harold Spencer Jones, British Astronomer Royal, 1957,

2 weeks before launch of Sputnik 1

Lesson: History has a way of overturning even the most

cherished paradigms!

1957 2007 some highlights
1957-2007: some highlights
  • Travel to the Moon and initial exploration of major planets, comets, asteroids
  • Understanding the Sun and its effect on the Earth’s environment
  • Detection of extra-solar planets
  • Discovery of super compact stars
    • importance of gravitational accretion as a source of energy
  • Discovery of quasars
    • prodigious energy understood as due to accretion onto supermassive black hole at the centre of galaxies
  • Seeing the birth of black holes
  • Mapping evolutionary history of stars & galaxies
  • Cosmic microwave background  ‘Big Bang’ cosmology
  • Measuring the geometry of the Universe
  • Discovery of ‘Dark Energy’
X-ray binary stars / first landing on Venus

Microwave background / first Mars flyby

Quasars / extra-solar X-ray sources

Gamma-ray bursts extragalactic

Lunar far-side photographed

Giotto flyby of Comet Halley

Hubble constant (precise)

Hot gas in galaxy clusters

Viking landers on Mars

Voyager Neptune flyby

Earth’s radiation belts

Voyager Uranus flyby

Black Hole in Cyg X-1

Voyager Jupiter flyby

Voyager Saturn flyby

Landing on Titan

Dark Energy

Apollo 11



Orbiting Solar



Spitzer (IR)

Uhuru (X-ray)

Skylab (Solar)

Swift (GRB)



IUE (ultraviolet)



Newton (X-ray)

Integral (-ray)






astronomy 2007
Astronomy 2007
  • Discoveries in past 50 years fuelled by
    • access to space,
    • development of electronics and detector systems,
    • computers.
  • Subject transformed compared to 1957
  • No let up in the pace of discovery
  • Even if rate of discovery lessens, still likely that subject will take many twists and turns before 2057!
  • So what is to come?
future plans
Future plans
  • Consider ESA’s space science programme
  • Organised in decadal plans
    • Horizon 2000, Horizon 2000+, Cosmic Visions 2015-2025
  • Illustrative - Other nations have similar plans, and many missions likely to be realised by international collaboration to make them affordable
  • So what are the prospects for the next few years?

ESA Science

the herschel mission

The Herschel Mission


ESA’s Herschel Space Observatory has the largest mirror ever built for a space telescope. At 3.5-metres in diameter the mirror will collect long-wavelength radiation from some of the coldest and most distant objects in the Universe. In addition, Herschel will be the only space observatory to cover a spectral range from the far infrared to sub-millimetre. Located at L2 (lagrangian point).


Study the formation of galaxies in the early universe and their subsequent evolution

Investigate the creation of stars and their interaction with the interstellar medium

Observe the chemical composition of the atmospheres and surfaces of comets, planets and satellites

Examine the molecular chemistry of the universe


james webb space telescope nasa esa canadian space agency
James Webb Space Telescope(NASA, ESA, Canadian Space Agency)
  • Infrared optimised successor to Hubble Space Telescope
  • Mirror diameter 6.5m. Will be located at L2 (operating temperature < 50K)
  • Themes:
    • The End of the Dark Ages: First light and re-ionisation
    • Assembly of Galaxies
    • Birth of stars & protoplanetary systems
    • Planetary Systems & the origin of life


the planck mission

The Planck Mission


Planck will help provide answers to one of the most important set of questions asked in modern science - how did the Universe begin, how did it evolve to the state we observe today, and how will it continue to evolve in the future? Planck's objective is to analyse, with the highest accuracy ever achieved, the remnants of the radiation that filled the Universe immediately after the Big Bang, which we observe today as the Cosmic Microwave Background.


Mapping of Cosmic Microwave Background anisotropies with improved sensitivity and angular resolution

Determination of Hubble constant

Testing inflationary models of the early universe

Measuring amplitude of structures in Cosmic Microwave Background


gaia galactic archaeology
GAIA: Galactic Archaeology
  • Apparent shift of star position wrt background viewed from opposite sides of Earth’s orbit
    • Parallax
    • Measure of distance
  • GAIA precision 20arcsec
    • Measure distances at Galactic centre to 20%
    • ~1 billion stars!
  • Also measure velocity in 3D
  • Brightness, luminosity and chemical composition
  • Create a 3-D structural map of the Galaxy!

Earth Orbit about Sun


gaia objectives
GAIA Objectives
  • Trace formation history of Milky Way through galaxy mergers
  • Find planets around stars out to 50 pc (10,000-50,000 planets)
  • Search for brown dwarf stars
  • Detect 10,000+ asteroids (including NEOs), comets etc in Solar System
  • Detect 105 supernovae in distant galaxies
  • Discover 5 x 105 quasars
  • Test General Relativity
gravitational wave astronomy
Gravitational Wave Astronomy
  • General relativity predicts that gravitational waves propagate at the speed of light
  • Ripples from distant binary stars should be detectable as minute distortions in the separations of two appropriately spaced test masses
  • New field of astronomy!
the lisa mission

The LISA Mission


LISA is an ESA-NASA mission involving three spacecraft flying approximately 5 million kilometres apart in an equilateral triangle formation. Together, they act as a Michelson interferometer to measure the distortion of space caused by passing gravitational waves. Lasers in each spacecraft will be used to measure minute changes in the separation distances of free-floating masses within each spacecraft.


To be the first spacecraft to detect gravitational waves

Measure the properties of binary star systems in the Galaxy and beyond

Test General Relativity under extreme conditions

Search for gravitational signature of the Big Bang


lisa concept
LISA Concept
  • LISA will consist of three spacecraft arranged in a triangle with sides 5m km
  • Separation will be measured by interferometry of laser beams shining between the three spacecraft
  • Change in separation due to gravitational waves tiny – typically 10-10 m from a Galactic binary
  • Reference point (test mass) must be shielded from external buffeting by, for example, the solar wind
the lisa pathfinder mission

The LISA Pathfinder Mission


LISA Pathfinder will pave the way for the LISA mission by testing in flight the very concept of the gravitational wave detection: it will put two test masses in a near-perfect gravitational free-fall and control and measure their motion with unprecedented accuracy. This is achieved through state-of-the-art technology comprising the inertial sensors, the laser metrology system, the drag-free control system and an ultra-precise micro-propulsion system.


LISA Pathfinder is to demonstrate the key technologies to be used in the future LISA mission.


solar storms
Solar Storms
  • Images from the X-ray Telescope on the Japan/UK/US Hinode satellite (launch Nov 2006) show turbulent solar atmosphere
  • Coronal mass ejections can result in dangerous radiation levels for humans and instrumentation
    • Particularly if outside the protection of the Earth’s magnetic field (e.g. Moon)
solar orbiter sentinels
Solar Orbiter Sentinels
  • Need to understand and predict these outbursts, and how they propagate out from the Sun
  • Require data from much closer to the Sun
  • Combination of ESA Solar Orbiter and NASA Sentinels to probe to 0.2 AU (i.e. inside the orbit of Mercury)
  • Very hostile environment!


the bepicolombo mission

The BepiColombo Mission


BepiColombo will set off in 2013 on a journey lasting approximately 6 years. When it arrives at Mercury in August 2019, it will endure temperatures as high as 350 °C and gather data during its 1 year nominal mission from September 2019 until September 2020, with a possible 1-year extension to September 2021.


- Origin and evolution of a planet close to the parent star

Mercury as a planet: form, interior, structure, geology, composition and craters

Mercury's vestigial atmosphere (exosphere): composition and dynamics

Mercury's magnetized envelope (magnetosphere): structure and dynamics

Origin of Mercury's magnetic field

Test of Einstein's theory of general relativity


the exomars mission

The EXOMARS Mission

  • First mission in Aurora programme
  • Launch in 2013
  • To explore Mars in three dimensions to understand habitability, life potential and hazards to future exploration
  • High mobility
  • Drill for sub-surface sampling to 2m depth
  • Suite of Exobiology instruments


distant travellers
Rosetta Mars EncounterDistant Travellers


  • Rosetta (ESA)
    • Launch 2004
    • Encounter with Comet 67 P/Churyumov- Gerasimenko 2014
  • New Horizons (NASA)
    • Launch 2006
    • Encounter with Pluto/Charon 2015


New Horizons

New Horizons

so what about the future
So what about the future?
  • 50 years is a long time in the current rapidly developing field of space science/astronomy
  • Progress and direction will certainly be hijacked by ‘unknown unknowns’!
    • As it should be since that’s what makes it exciting!!
  • However many existing/planned missions and facilities have a longevity measured in decades
  • So interesting to look at people’s current aspirations as a guide to what might be done in the next decades
aspirations for the future some ideas for esa cosmic visions
Early Universe & Evolution

2nd generation gravitational wave observatory focussed on residual radiation from the big bang – Universe at <1s

High precision measurements of cosmic microwave background polarisation to test big bang models, inflation

Large area, high spectral resolution X-ray observatory for studying earliest black holes and role in galaxy formation

Dark Energy

High sensitivity surveys for distant supernovae, gravitational lensing – distinguish Dark Energy models

Planetary and Stellar Evolution

Infrared Interferometer: high-resolution spectroscopy at 0.01arcsec spatial resolution, capable of resolving nearby protoplanetary disks.

Survey of 100,000 stars for Earth-like and smaller planets, plus stellar evolution studies.

Environments of Earth-like planets

Molecular hydrogen explorer

High-Energy Universe

First large-area focussing -ray telescope: Gamma-ray bursts, supernovae, AGN, accretion disks, Galactic centre

Aspirations for the Future(some ideas for ESA Cosmic Visions)
aspirations for the future cont
Fundamental Physics

Accurate measurement of G and limits on change, equivalence principle, link General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics, search for evidence of superstrings

Magnetic Reconnection & Solar Activity

Measure processes in Earth’s magnetosphere with fleet of 12 spacecraft at proton to electron interaction scales.

Sample Solar wind environment very close to Sun

Planetary Exploration

Lunar exploration & characterise interior and cosmochemistry, sample return.

Mars networks and sample return

Venus Entry Probe: long-term balloon-bourne investigation plus surface samples

Europa Exploration: characterise ice thickness and surface/interior characteristics leading to search for life in liquid subsurface oceans

Asteroid sample return: 50-100g from surface/subsurface regolith of primitive body.

Aspirations for the Future (cont)
example extra solar planets
Example: Extra-Solar Planets
  • Over 200 planets known around other stars
  • Most discovered by dynamical studies
    • Wobble in parent caused by unseen companion
    • Favours massive planets close to star (hot Jupiters)
  • Can also be detected when they transit in front of parent star
    • Need high sensitivity to detect tiny reduction in stellar light
    • French-led CoRoT mission launched in 2006
    • NASA Kepler 2008
    • Capable of detecting earth-like rocky planets in habitable zone
search for life bearing planets
Search for Life-bearing planets
  • Ultimate aim is to determine whether Earth-like planets harbour conditions for life
  • Aim of Darwin/Terrestrial Planet Finder missions
  • Array of spacecraft working together as one
    • Use Nulling interferometer or coronograph to block out light from parent star
    • Determine composition of planet’s atmosphere
possible headlines from 2007 2057
Possible Headlines from 2007-2057
  • Scientists find birthplace of the first stars
  • Water found in Young Planetary System
  • Antimatter explorer prepares for launch
  • Astronomers find missing matter!
  • Astronomers find every galaxy in the Universe
  • Astronomers seek the first black holes
  • Scientists see the beginning of time
  • Einstein was wrong!
  • The road to unification finally revealed!
  • Spacecraft flies into the eye of a Solar hurricane
  • We are not alone!
  • When life began!
  • Doomed worlds
  • Scientists find biological activity on another Earth!
  • Earth’s evil twin shows us a glimpse of our future
  • Life, but not as we know it!
what do we need for a healthy future
What do we need for a healthy future?


Smaller, Faster, Cheaper used to be the


With change, still makes sense, so long

as we also use Faster in the sense of

‘higher velocity’

need to maintain momentum
Need to maintain momentum
  • Tendency for greater challenges to drive more complex missions
    • Greater cost, more extended timescales, less risk
  • Harder to inspire when time between and idea and fruition measured in decades!
  • Mitigation: reduce cost of access to space
    • Encourage turnover, accept higher risk, encourage innovative solutions
  • Positive developments:
    • Investment in infrastructure, for exploration
    • Commercial launch companies driven by private investors
    • Innovation & Low-cost platforms (e.g. SSTL)
faster travel
Faster travel
  • Current travel time to outer planets, and even Mercury, limits progress
  • Voyager 1 currently at 100 AU after 30+ years
    • ~0.5 lt days
  • Need more efficient propulsion to effectively explore outer planets, Kuiper belt and even interstellar space
    • E.g. ion drive as used recently on SMART-1
more data
More data
  • Increasingly accustomed to a high data-rate environment in science
  • We have smart, capable instruments that can tackle complex problems
  • But, ability to get data back from instruments in remote locations an increasing limitation
    • E.g. Solar Orbiter, where telemetry rate does not permit continuous use of high speed measurements
  • Need high bandwidth communications infrastructure for entire solar system
    • E.g. laser comms
astronomy access protection
Astronomy Access/Protection

Large infrastructure

  • Favoured sites
    • L2: deep space, cryogenic
    • L1: solar
    • Lunar far side: future large infrastructure
  • Need to protect environment from the outset
    • Particularly crucial in radio regime
    • Mobile phone in the Moon would be one of the brightest astronomical sources seen from Earth!
  • More robust & available transportation infrastructure
    • Maintenance & repair at L1, L2 from Lunar space ?
    • Need efficient transport


Deep Space