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Last Updated:  Monday, 24 March, 2003, 15:18 GMT
UK seeks to go it alone in space
By Helen Briggs
BBC News Online science reporter

Britain is planning its first solo space science mission in 20 years, BBC News Online has learned.

Rutherford Appleton Lab
Earthshine would measure sunlight reflected back from Earth
Scientists hope to send a satellite into deep space to study solar influences on climate change.

The Earthshine mission would showcase British expertise and provide vital data on climate change.

Principal investigator Mike Lockwood, of the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in Oxfordshire, believes going it alone will deliver answers more quickly than joining forces with other nations.

"The need is to get the data quickly," he told BBC News Online. "Science has moved to a point where people are asking questions now that we can't answer because we don't have the data."

Maverick opinion

Earthshine strays into the contentious area of the Sun's influence on climate change.

Evidence suggests that variations in the amount of solar radiation reaching the Earth, because of changes in the Sun's activity, may impact on climate.

Nasa/Esa
A recent image of the Sun taken by the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (Soho).
Most observers believe the solar contribution is minor compared with humanity's footprint on the planet but a few scientists argue that it may equal or outweigh human factors.

Dr Lockwood is keen to stress that he does not take the maverick view.

"I am not out to prove that anthropogenic effects are caused by the Sun," he said. "This (solar variability) is in no way a rival to manmade effects - the interplay between the two is much more subtle and complex than that."

'Unique view'

The nature and extent of solar influence on climate is not fully understood, however, which is where Earthshine comes in.

The spacecraft would carry out experiments from a vantage point about 1.5 million kilometres from the Earth where there is an uninterrupted view of the Sun.

The spacecraft would have a "unique view" of the sunlight reflected back out to space by our planet, hence its name, Earthshine.

Its three scientific instruments would probe cosmic rays and clouds to test current models of climate change.

"The possibility that current climate models underestimate the effect of solar variations on climate is probably the single most contentious issue in climate research at the moment," said Dr Myles Allen of the department of physics at Oxford University.

"The mission has the potential to settle the argument or at least put an upper figure on how far the models are wrong."

Dr Lockwood estimates that Earthshine would cost about 16m, which he says is "absolutely tiny" for a space mission.

The Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council, the Natural Environment Research Council and the Department of Trade and Industry are expected to provide funding. The satellite would be built by the space company, Astrium. Scientific instruments would be supplied by Imperial College London, Birmingham University and the Mullard Space Science Laboratory.




SEE ALSO:
Cosmic rays 'linked to clouds'
19 Oct 02 |  Science/Nature
Viewpoint: The Sun and climate change
16 Nov 00 |  Climate change
Questioning global warming
14 Nov 00 |  Climate change


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