Page last updated at 19:00 GMT, Wednesday, 22 July 2009 20:00 UK

Europe eyes 'innovative UK space'

By Jonathan Amos
Science reporter, BBC News

Jean-Jacques Dordain (Crown Copyright)
We need new skills, new competence; and I am looking for competence and expertise outside the space world
Jean-Jacques Dordain
Esa director general

The European Space Agency (Esa) has officially opened its new British research centre.

The facility joins a group of hi-tech businesses and academic institutes that operate on the Harwell innovation campus near Oxford.

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

The facility will focus on science and exploration, with particular emphasis aimed at robotics and climate change.

Esa expects the new Harwell unit to become its hub for "industrial intelligence", an outward-looking venture that seeks to pull new ideas into the agency from the private sector.

"We at Esa are looking at the Harwell site to see how we can work differently on the techno front with industry - not just British industry, but European industry in general," Professor David Southwood, Esa's chief scientist, told BBC News.

The UK government hopes to make the facility the key element of a broader effort at Harwell that will be called the International Space Innovation Centre (ISIC) - a place where academia and industry can spark off each other.

"One of the ambitions is to get a better flow of thinking and ideas across existing boundaries," said Dr David Williams, Britain's most senior civil servant with responsibility for space.

This fits with the existing ethos at Harwell. The campus is a joint endeavour of the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), the UK Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA), and the international property group Goodman.

It has attracted a range of hi-tech companies, many already pursuing space-related activities. But its most visible occupant is the giant, publicly funded Diamond synchrotron light source.

Diamond is the UK's largest investment in science for 30 years and probes the structure of materials on the finest scales using X-rays. It is used both by university scientists and researchers working in the private sector.

Tim Peake with a Mars rover prototype (Crown Copyright)
British astronaut Tim Peake with the Mars rover testbed chassis called "Bridget"

The Esa centre plans to follow this model as it works on:

Climate change: The centre will use data from space satellites to improve the tools for forecasting climate change and its impacts.

Robotics: Harwell will develop new robotics technologies and power sources for use in spacecraft that are sent to explore other planets.

Diamond (UKAEA)
Harwell and the ring-shaped Diamond synchrotron light source

Applications: The centre will combine space data and images to create new applications for everyday life, such as automatic safety-of-life location services for use at sea.

Archiving: Harwell will develop the expertise to handle rock samples brought back from other worlds for study in Earth labs.

Esa's director general, Jean-Jacques Dordain, said the Harwell centre was likely to become a model for all future agency facilities.

"Space has become more and more important - for governments, for citizens, for Europe, for the world.

"We need new skills, new competence; and I am looking for competence and expertise outside the space world. This is the way I would like to create new facilities now; it is to connect space expertise with non-space expertise, and this is how we will be innovative."

The other Esa centres are:

• 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 the Esa HQ in Paris.

The UK government announced on Monday that it would hold a 12-week consultation on the issue of whether Britain should have its own dedicated space agency. If set up, this organisation would lead the UK's space policy and its relations at the European level.

Britain currently spends upwards of £250m a year on civil space activity. Most of this money is channelled into programmes run by Esa.

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