The Twentieth Planetary Congress

September 21, 2007

The Association of Space Explorers is in town – qualification for membership at least one orbit of the Earth. (I guess a round the world ticket on British Airways doesn’t count). So two days ago the astronauts, cosmonauts, and the tiny number of euro-nauts were dispersed about the Schools of Scotland giving inspirational talks. Then yesterday there was a public conference hosted by the University, with a whole bunch of interesting talks – about fire safety on spacecraft; about how to keep crew members fed all the way to Mars; about returning to the Moon; and about how space exploration has changed our attitude to Earth and its fragility.

It was a strange occasion for various reasons. Firstly, the audience was about one third each crumbling astronauts, university scientists, and high school kids, all sitting in different parts of the room. Secondly, my daughter was there, which I am not used to at scientific meetings. She made faces at me from across the auditorium anytime somebody said something vaguely rude about astronomers. Thirdly, it was all taking place in the famous Assembly Hall of the Church of Scotland. During the intervals, walking the corridors drinking tea, I felt I should be plotting against other factions, watching out for the ecclesiastical knife, and fretting about gay bishops and so on.

There was a talk about the NASA “return to the Moon” program, now called Constellation (not to be confused with Constellation-X, the big X-ray mission). I still can’t quite decide what I feel about money on the manned space program versus the unmanned science programme, but it depends on how you ask the question. If the question is “well, we got so much money for space stuff – do you wanna spend it on astronauts or on telescopes and space probes ?” then my answer is “telescopes please”. But if the question is “should we spend another billion or ten on bombing Iran, or should we train up some astronauts for going to the moon ?” then my answer is “why are you even asking ?”

Leaving the Planet versus Finding More

January 5, 2007

Here in Scotland time vanishes for more or less two weeks over Christmas, Hogmanay, and Hangover. I’ve done very little for a while – eating, playing with the kids, reading, watching TV, plus a bit of thinking about quasars, and a bit of experimenting in Blog Land. I got round to registering with Bloglines – it is very good – so I have been keeping up with the astro-news. Bad Astronomy and the Universe Today are good; but I also discovered that my old school chum Paul Sutherland runs a site called Skymania News; and there is a nice space politics site.

Two pieces of news caught my attention – the launch of the planet finder mission Corot, and the decision of the UK government to invest after all in manned spaceflight. They both seem very positive, but I found myself feeling nervous. The danger is that as more money is spent on space exploration, then “space science” is seen as being quite well catered for thank you, and pure astrophysics gets squeezed. This is not an idle worry. During the Thatcher Years, astronomy funding stayed flat in cash terms and so fell by half in real terms over two decades. The Labour government, since 1997, has steadily increased science funding and continues to do so, but with a clear practical agenda; astronomy has struggled to stay flat in real terms, and is falling behind other sciences.

Corot stands out as being cheap by space standards, and being the first space mission specifically aimed to shoot at the exo-planet target – this science has mostly been done from the ground with small telescopes, and in the future will be done by hugely expensive space missions like Darwin/TPF or whatever its called these days. “Astrobiology” in the loose sense is getting trendier by the day. An argument can be made that stars are understood, that cosmology has reached an impasse, that quasars are just too hard to understand, that star formation can’t be solved; so finding and studying planets is the most important frontier.

Finding exo-planets has an obvious popular appeal – like most of astronomy – but its pretty pure science. No patents or mining rights or social engineering here. Exploring planets in our own solar system has always been a little more two edged. Part of the agenda is purely scientific – but partly it has always been about the spirit of adventure, international competition, or Keynesian pyramid building, funneling money to the kind of industry we want to see encouraged. These are all <em good things</em> but science they aint. For many years, astronomers have argued that unmanned exploration is the best and cheapest way to do the science, and that manned exploration is purely about the adventure/competition/pyramids. The UK government obviously thought manned exploration was a pointless expensive dick waving exercise. (If you are going to waste money on your pride, much better to do it on submarine missiles). So what changed ?

Well of course, partly this is a response to the NASA agenda, and the push to get back to the moon. But locally, just for once, the good old Royal Astronomical Society may have had some influence. If you check out the RAS news item on this issue, you will be reminded that the RAS commissioned a review, led by Ken Pounds and Frank Close, who recommended that the UK government change its policy and spend money on manned space exploration. They had three key scientific aims in mind :

  1. establishing an astronomical observatory on the moon
  2. getting moon rock cores 100m deep to study the history of the solar system
  3. drilling below the permafrost on Mars, looking for life

These are very exciting but expensive. The UK would only play a small part. Pounds and Close suggest the UK would need to spend of the order £150M/yr for 25 years to participate, and – here is the rub – that this should be on top of the existing science budget rather than being found within it.

Time to start watching the pea under the cups ..