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Last Updated: Thursday, 14 February 2008, 00:06 GMT
Ministers consider UK astronauts
By Pallab Ghosh
Science correspondent, BBC News

The Moon
The UK has historically opted out of manned space exploration
The UK government is to launch a formal review into whether British astronauts should take part in the international exploration of space.

The review has been prompted by growing fears that the UK might lose out in the next wave of space travel.

International space agencies have set out ambitious plans in a document called the Global Exploration Strategy.

Science Minister Ian Pearson said space was "increasingly important" and worth 7bn to the British economy.

Costs and benefits

The British National Space Centre (BNSC) said in the new UK Civil Space Strategy published on Thursday: "In 1986, the UK chose not to participate in human space missions.

"The publication of the Global Exploration Strategy provides a suitable point to review this decision."

The BNSC will study the options, taking into account the scientific, technological and economic costs and benefits, and report to Innovation Secretary John Denham.

Mr Pearson said: "This strategy sets out measures to increase the UK's share of this growing international sector."

The review is expected to take between six and 12 months.

The UK has historically opted out of manned space exploration, and spent its limited space budget on detailed scientific missions involving robotic probes.

The new strategy also unveils plans for a new European Space Agency (Esa) facility to be based at Harwell, Oxfordshire, which will focus on climate change, robotic space exploration and applications.

The upcoming Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES) initiative is expected to make an important contribution to our understanding of global warming and its impacts.

But the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) took a small share in the project, which will draw together environment and security data from earth observation satellites and the ground.

The move surprised some observers, particularly given the government's vocal stance on tackling climate change. But the BNSC is now in discussions with Defra to explore options for raising Britain's stake in the initiative.

British mission

Meanwhile, in another development, Nasa is due to give its formal backing in a report to a British-led 100m mission to the Moon.

HAVE YOUR SAY
Better to invest in space exploration than some of the things this government has piled money into
Ray
The US space agency has described the MoonLITE mission to send a small probe to the Moon in 2013 as "inspirational".

The unmanned project involves the craft firing 4m-long darts called penetrators onto the lunar terrain.

The devices would enable scientists to scratch beneath the surface of the Moon and assess geological activity.

Nasa and the BNSC have produced a joint working group report which sets out plans for long-term lunar co-operation.

The document picks out the MoonLITE proposal as one of the first projects that could be carried out jointly between the UK and the US.

I'm very confident that there could be a British Mission to the Moon in five years' time
Professor Alan Smith
Mullard Space Sciences Laboratory

The report acknowledges that it would be difficult to design and build a spacecraft ready to launch in just five years, but suggests that the challenge would get creative juices flowing and give young space scientists and engineers valuable experience.

Professor Alan Smith, of the Mullard Space Sciences Laboratory which is leading the proposal, said he was "very excited" at the report's description of the project.

He said: "It's a great outcome at this stage."

Question mark

The report recommends that a formal UK-US team is set up to oversee the details of the scheme.

The next stage starting early this year is to hammer out the practicalities of building the spacecraft.

There is a question mark over whether the UK could afford the mission.

Even though the estimated cost is cheap by space exploration standards, the current state of the Science and Technology Facilities Council's finances might make it difficult for the UK to fund its share of the mission.

The STFC is responsible for much of the UK's space exploration activities. It is cutting programmes and grants in astronomy and particle physics to try to plug an 80m shortfall in its budget.



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Animated preview of a potential UK moon mission



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