My field of particle physics is not an individual endeavour. It’s collaborative. The more individualistic scientists, the ones who want to be out on their own, generally don’t succeed in a field that relies on collaboration.
As I look out of my window on UK Research and Innovation’s (UKRI) Harwell campus, I see many great facilities and clusters of innovative businesses. This success is not the result of the efforts of a single person. It builds on the hard work of many people over many years, and today this continues to be a massive collaborative team effort.
There are some very exciting things going on in the space sector right now and they are being delivered by large teams of people coming together from across research and business, with the Harwell campus as one of the main focal points.
Answering the big questions
The UK is major player in the European Space Agency (ESA).
We are playing key roles in many of ESA’s biggest missions right now. The Juice mission (Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer) is now on its way to Jupiter, to search for hints of life on its moons. It will be incredibly exciting to see what it finds – although there will be quite a long wait…
The James Webb Space Telescope (a joint ESA and NASA mission) is already changing the way we understand the Universe. When the first images came back from the telescope last year, you could grasp some of the scientific insight just by looking at those pictures, from deeply red shifted galaxies to gravitational lensing.
The Euclid space telescope launched two months ago. This will carry out large-scale surveys of the Universe. Its mission is to answer really big questions about dark matter and dark energy – the stuff we can’t see that makes up the majority of the mass in the Universe.
Pushing the frontiers of technology
A lot of today’s pure science will become critical for tomorrow’s technology, and you never really know what it will help you to do in the future. The great example is Einstein’s general theory of relativity. I suspect nobody thought it would ever have practical applications when it was being developed.
Now, if you are using a GPS system, it uses incredibly fast and precise timing. They must make general relativistic corrections to get that right. You wouldn’t have accurate GPS without an understanding of general relativity.
Importantly, the advanced technologies we are now developing for these space missions will filter down into new applications.
At the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), we developed radiation-hard detectors, which have been used in space and are used in particle physics. These detectors were developed for particle physics and space science, but they subsequently became the underlying technology for modern cryo-electron microscopy, which won a Nobel Prize about six years ago. This has been a game-changer for understanding structural biology.
To pushing the frontiers of knowledge, it is often necessary to push the frontiers of technology and in doing so you open up new opportunities for research and innovation.
Space is a 21st-century growth sector
Space is one of the growth sectors of the early 21st century. It’s worth more than £16.4 billion a year to the UK economy and employs more than 45,000 people, including scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs, and innovators.
We have a strong space science heritage in the UK and we’re particularly strong in developing the technologies that go into space missions including Earth observation missions.
If you’re watching the weather forecast, you are accessing space data. Furthermore, a lot of our understanding of climate change at a global level comes from Earth observation data. You can see how it is changing agriculture locally and globally.
Satellite data is also being increasingly used in artificial intelligence application to help innovative businesses and to make us more productive as a country.
There are very few commercial sectors that don’t have some contact with space, even if they don’t know it.
Space is going to become an ever more important part of the global economy. We are already seeing this in the number of satellites being launched. If the UK doesn’t invest in the underpinning technologies, we are going to be left behind. Fortunately, we are in a strong position and UKRI is playing a major role.
Space clusters are accelerating
The UKRI site at Harwell is the biggest space campus in the UK. The big enabling infrastructure for space is here.
Later this year, we’ll be opening the National Satellite Test Facility at RAL Space in Oxfordshire. It will be one of the leading satellite test facilities in Europe. The scale is incredible – two vast clean rooms to enable the testing of the very largest satellites.
We’re looking forward to seeing the first satellites come through the door and go through simulations of what they will experience at launch and the hostile conditions of space.
Over the past years, we have seen a real acceleration of the Harwell cluster model. This started with underpinning facilities, that can only be delivered at national level. This infrastructure first attracts a few innovative businesses. More businesses come because there’s a large company they want to work with, and the cluster of businesses grows and grows.
We now have more than 100 high-technology space businesses at our Harwell campus.
We have started a space cluster at Daresbury in the north-west. The space sector in Scotland is extremely strong not only at STFC’s UK Astronomy Technology Centre in Edinburgh but also working with partners and private companies. We are also working closely with universities. A good example is Leicester. It’s on a different scale, but also very impressive.
Championing the space sector
I’ve recently taken on the role of UKRI Sector Champion for Space.
It’s evolved from what we’ve been doing across UKRI over the last few years in trying to work more effectively across the different councils in the organisation. I have focused on STFC, but the other councils of UKRI are playing important roles in research and innovation in the UK space sector.
For example, the Natural Environment Research Council has major research interests in climate and makes extensive use of Earth observation data, Innovate UK is also a big player in funding technology small and medium-sized enterprises in the space sector, and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council develops a wide range of technologies that have applications to space.
Since we have come together across UKRI, our voice into government has become much more effective. For example, UKRI played a significant role in the drafting of the new national space strategy and will play a big part in its delivery.
Collaborate or fail
It’s not just happening at UKRI. We’re seeing a convergence of the whole space technology sector. It’s a bringing together of government, the commercial sector, the UK Space Agency, and Space Command in the Ministry of Defence.
It feels like the UK space sector is coming together now in a much more coordinated way. It’s important commercially but also for delivering a national sovereign capability around space. I’m optimistic this will accelerate over the next couple of years through the delivery of the national space strategy. Having this convergence means some of the things that perhaps once fell between the gaps will now happen.
Working across the space sector must be collaborative because this is complex science and complex technology. All big science and technology require effective collaboration. When you need hundreds of people to develop the science and technology, you collaborate or fail.
Top image: Credit: UKRI