Page last updated at 12:36 GMT, Wednesday, 26 November 2008
Europe's 10bn euro space vision



By Jonathan Amos
Science reporter, BBC News, The Hague

Diamond Light Source
The giant Diamond ring is the most visible presence at Harwell

The European Space Agency (Esa) is to open a research centre in Britain.

The facility, which will be based on the Harwell innovation campus in Oxfordshire, will concentrate on space robotics and climate change science.

The UK has been the only major Esa member not to host one of the agency's technical or administrative centres.

The agreement to open the facility was announced in The Hague where European science ministers have been meeting to approve agency policies and funding.

Senior Esa executive Daniel Sacotte told BBC News the agreement was a symbolic moment.

"It's important. It shows renewed interest for Britain to be part of Esa, to be involved in space activity; and we welcome that.

"It's a new development in our relationship with this very important member state."

Roving role

Negotiations to open the centre have taken a number of years to complete, and became tied up with financial commitments Esa asked the UK to make on some of the agency's other activities, in particular in the realm of Earth observation.

Britain was able to make those commitments here and sign the documents that will give the green light to the establishment of the new centre.

Rover testbed (Oerlikon)
The UK is heavily involved in the ExoMars project

Its precise remit has yet to be fully worked out.

But with the UK being a major player in Esa's flagship space robot programme, the ExoMars rover, it makes sense that the centre should focus on such expertise.

Mr Sacotte, the special advisor to Esa's director general, explained: "We have been identifying a few sectors of possible activity, including robotics of course; because in the development of the ExoMars programme, the industrial role of Great Britain is to develop the robot that will be going and searching for life on the planet Mars."

How the climate element is incorporated into the centre is still to be defined.

Esa already has a centre dedicated to Earth observation in Italy, but Britain has clear expertise in climate science and the agency is keen to exploit that.

Spaced out

Lord Drayson, the UK science minister, said it was a symbolic moment: "I think it reflects the recognition within the United Kingdom of the growing importance of space research.

"We are the fourth largest contributor to the European space programme and we've been selective in those areas that we've contributed to, to enable us to develop real focus and a world lead in certain areas," he told BBC News.

"It's now time to capitalise on that lead, to get more of the investment that we've made in Esa actually spent here in the UK."

The Harwell campus has become a major hub for science and technology businesses.

The site is owned by the Science and Technology Facilities Council, the UK Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) and the Health Protection Agency.

Its most visible occupant is the giant Diamond synchrotron light source, the UK's largest investment in science for 30 years. Diamond probes the structure of materials on the finest scales using X-rays.

The agreement with Esa states that the UK will bear the cost of constructing the new research centre.

Once complete, it will complement the existing facilities:

• The European Space Research and Technology Centre (Estec) in Noordwijk, the Netherlands, is the largest Esa centre. Spacecraft are tested at Estec before being launched.

• The European Space Operations Centre (Esoc) in Darmstadt, Germany, is the location from where Esa spacecraft are controlled during their missions.

Esrin in Frascati, Italy, is the Esa Centre for Earth Observation.

• The European Space Astronomy Centre (Esac) is Esa's centre dedicated to space science and astronomy, and is based in Villanueva de la Canada, Spain.

• The European Astronaut Centre (Eac) trains Europe's astronauts and is situated in Cologne, Germany.

• France does not have a research centre, but it hosts Esa headquarters in Paris.

Esa's director general, Jean-Jacques Dordain, told BBC News: "This is the right time and the right opportunity to build a new facility in the UK and take the benefit of the expertise that already exists on the Harwell campus."

Jonathan.Amos-INTERNET@bbc.co.uk



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