Page last updated at 14:18 GMT, Monday, 29 September 2008 15:18 UK

Amateurs leading the space race

The International Astronautical Congress is being held in Glasgow this week.

The congress provides an opportunity for 2,000 experts from across the world to discuss the latest advances in space flight technology.

Here, W. David Woods, author of How Apollo Flew to the Moon, explains how amateur enthusiasts are using the web to lead the way in furthering our understanding of the solar system.

Let's be up front about this. I really like space. My eyes are wide as saucers when the surfaces of distant planets get stirred up by humans or their machines and I revel in the technical prowess that makes such feats possible.

Apollo 11 astronaut on moon
Images and data from the Apollo moon landings are still being analysed

I count myself lucky to be within a society that can pull off these incredible feats.

This week, my home town of Glasgow is hosting the International Astronautical Congress in the city's SECC.

Note that this is astronautics and not astronomy - in other words, flying in space rather than looking at it.

Under the theme, "From imagination to reality", the congress is a chance for people in the space industry, from academics to entrepreneurs, to discuss current developments and look ahead to what might be possible, from tiny satellites to the near fantasy of starship propulsion systems.

At first sight, Glasgow might not appear to have much to do with space flight, and it always comes as a surprise to my American friends to discover that Scotland is home to a prolific knot of space aficionados.

Great sophistication

Indeed, Britain seems to harbour a disproportionately large number of so-called 'space geeks'.

Despite this, the UK's contribution to the exploration of the Solar System doesn't seem to match our economic standing as the fifth-largest economy.

The European space effort, as expressed through the European Space Agency (ESA), is somewhat understated when compared to the USA and Russia, and now China with its evolving human space programme, even though ESA shows great sophistication in its missions.

Space enthusiasts, like me, generally have to look across the Atlantic for our fix of advanced space exploration.

The Americans are not only very good at it, they are refreshingly open when it comes to public outreach.

Artist impression of Rosetta probe
The ESA has launched unmanned craft like the Rosetta probe

They quickly share the results from their missions, using the web to distribute pictures from other worlds so anyone can process them.

More than four years ago, NASA's centre in Pasadena, California, placed two robotic rovers on the surface of Mars to explore its surface for just 90 days.

Incredibly, both are still working and sending back data and pictures, and one is about to embark on an adventurous dash across a Martian desert.

At about the same time as they landed, a British enthusiast, Doug Ellison, set up a forum where amateurs could feed off each others knowledge, talents and enthusiasm.

Its 1,600 members sift through the deluge of images coming down from Mars and all the other robotic emissarys throughout the solar system.

They then work these pictures in new and imaginative ways. A favourite trick is to stitch lots of small images into glorious sweeping panoramas that can be breathtaking.

Moderated by Ellison, the forum has blossomed to the point where even the professionals find it to be a useful tool in keeping up to date with the progress of their own missions.

British lander

Steve Squyres, lead scientist for the rovers, often finds that worldwide amateurs can react so much faster than professionals on office hours.

"Frequently I'll get up in the morning and the first place I go is Unmannedspaceflight because I know I'm going to get the mosaics there when nobody in Pasadena's even woken up yet," he admitted.

European spacecraft have tended to miss out on the benefits of such enthusiasm.

While NASA provide torrents of goodies in almost real time, the European Space Agency (ESA) would only release small dribbles of information about their flagship spacecraft.

However, Ellison has noticed a change. The ESA spacecraft, Mars Express, has been on orbit around Mars since it took the doomed British lander, Beagle 2, to the red planet.

It had a small camera installed to take images of the departing probe. That camera has remained unused while the spacecraft continued with its work.

Recently, the camera was turned back on and its images made available on the web. Immediately, enthusiasts got to work to write software to handle its pictures, a task that the ESA team lacked resources for.

Mars [Courtesy NASA/JPL/Cornell/James Canvin]
Forum members help process images like this one sent back from Mars

"They then went on to produce colour animations and mosaics and even to identify and measure interesting features such as high-altitude clouds." says Ellison.

"These features have, as a direct result, been seen by science team members who are looking at how to investigate them further and possibly even give the camera more observation time."

Ellison's forum echoes another effort by enthusiasts, including myself, to maintain the legacy of the Apollo missions of nearly 40 years ago.

The Apollo Lunar Surface Journal is a remarkable website that documents in exacting detail the human exploration of the Moon during the golden age of lunar exploration.

NASA has encouraged it by hosting the site and making Apollo-era photography increasingly available for the public to scrutinise and process.

Ellison is upbeat about the benefits of such enlightened public outreach.

He said: "Putting those images out there, giving people access to information about the missions from the first person perspective rather than relying on news media to relay events to the public, has turned the game on its head.

"And you know what? I think Europe is finally beginning to get it. I think key figures within ESA are realising the potential benefits of letting people see space exploration unfold in real time, and see it for the difficult, challenging and rewarding process that it is.

"They may not have the resources to do everything they might like to, but they are beginning to get the message that to do good outreach, you have to let people in."

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