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Last Updated: Friday, 20 April 2007, 11:04 GMT 12:04 UK
UK looks to closer ties with Nasa
Artist's impression of Swift (Nasa)
The UK already plays significant roles on some US-led missions
UK scientists and engineers look set for more and bigger roles in US space agency (Nasa) missions.

It follows the signing of a document of understanding between the Americans and the British National Space Centre, which coordinates UK space efforts.

A joint team will be established to examine the prospects for collaborative lunar robotic projects.

The next few years are likely to see a rush of missions going to the Moon to test technologies to take to Mars.

British researchers have already been studying a number of ideas that could contribute to this new wave of exploration.

These include small robotic orbiters and landers, and even dart technology that would allow instruments to be shot into the lunar soil as a spacecraft flew overhead.

Aspects of these mission architectures may now have more chance of flying.

New wave

The UK has a long history of successful collaboration on Nasa missions. The Americans' Stereo mission, recently launched to study the Sun, incorporates British camera-detector technology and a key instrument to follow ejections of solar material.

And for the Nasa Swift mission that detects gamma-ray bursts, the UK provided core telescope components and a data analysis centre.

Penetrator mission (SSTL)
Researchers have looked at dart technology to deploy instruments

The hope will be that the new agreement signed in Washington on Thursday will lead to many more such collaborations.

"The agreement comes at a very good time," commented Dr Andrew Coates, a leading planetary scientist at University College London and a co-investigator on the current Cassini-Huygens mission to Saturn.

"We're just in the process of planning the next great phase of missions. This is particularly true in Europe where we are busy writing proposals at the moment for missions that would run from 2015 to 2025.

"We would hope from this agreement that we would get to fly more instruments on more US missions - to the Moon, to Mars and beyond; as well as working with our usual partners within the European Space Agency," he told BBC News.

Moon network

The agreement was signed by Nasa Administrator Dr Mike Griffin and Sir Keith O'Nions, director-general of Science and Innovation at the Department of Trade and Industry.

The document talks of the mutual desire for detailed discussions on specific areas of potential collaboration involving lunar science and explorations.

"These cooperative efforts may range from the exchange of information related to research and development to actual contributions for particular missions," it reads.

BNSC receives most of its funding from the new Science and Technology Facilities Council.

The council's chief executive officer, Professor Keith Mason, said: "Nasa is committed to a long-term lunar exploration programme leading to a scientific research outpost, likely near the lunar South Pole, by 2020.

"In advance of this, permanent robotic communications and navigation infrastructure will need to be installed in lunar orbit in parallel with scientific reconnaissance of the surface. And this is where UK industry and academia could play a vital part.

"We have unique expertise in small satellites and miniaturised instruments which could provide a low-cost lunar telecoms capability, whilst simultaneously deploying probes to the Moon's surface in order to characterise the surface and interior."

UK tests Moon lander technology
20 Apr 07 |  Science/Nature
Beagle 2 'could go to the Moon'
16 Mar 07 |  Science/Nature
Martian moon 'could be key test'
09 Feb 07 |  Science/Nature
Britain plans first Moon mission
10 Jan 07 |  Science/Nature


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