Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 19 November 2019

Space megaprojects of the future will thrill and inspire, says top official

A gold-plated Hubble for the 21st century and new ISS will capture imagination

Engineers and technicians assemble the James Webb Space Telescope at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Centre in Greenbelt, Maryland. Photo by Alex Wong / Getty Images
Engineers and technicians assemble the James Webb Space Telescope at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Centre in Greenbelt, Maryland. Photo by Alex Wong / Getty Images

A series of megaprojects are set to invigorate the space sector in the coming decade, a top industry official has said.

Dr Alice Bunn, international director of the UK Space Agency, said the upcoming launch of the James Webb Space Telescope and a replacement for the International Space Station were huge undertakings only made possible by nations working together.

The vice chair of the Council of the European Space Agency also said Emirati astronaut Hazza Al Mansouri’s journey to ISS was “incredibly well received” by the sector and showed what small nations can achieve.

We’re talking about what will become the replacement to the International Space Station - that will be a global effort

Dr Alice Bunn

“It’s really impressive what UAE has been able to achieve as a relatively late entrant into the space sector,” she told The National at the World Economic Forum's Global Future Councils meeting in Dubai on Sunday.

“They made some big promises - and they’ve delivered on those big promises.”

The James Webb – an enormous satellite of gold mirrors made to replace the famous Hubble telescope – is scheduled for launch in March 2021 and cost about $10 billion to develop.

Meanwhile, the $150 billion ISS is set for decommissioning in 2028. A replacement is under discussion but is expected to cost tens if not hundreds of billions of dollars.

“Space is still expensive - you can’t get around it - but there are really two classes of missions emerging,” said Dr Bunn.

“You still have these hugely important scientific infrastructure missions. We’re talking about what will become the replacement to the International Space Station - that will be a global effort.

Alice Bunn of the UK and European space agencies speaks about the need to regulate global powers' use of space. Courtesy: World Economic Forum
Alice Bunn of the UK and European space agencies speaks about the need to regulate global powers' use of space. Courtesy: World Economic Forum

“And next year we’ll see the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope, the follow on for Hubble, which will enable incredible capabilities.

“Those massive science infrastructure projects will always have a very wide base of multinational support.”

But the cost of smaller space missions is being cut every year as scientists find ever-cheaper ways of reaching space.

India’s Chandrayaan-2 mission to the moon, which although ended in failure in September, cost just $140 million, a fraction of any previous space mission of its kind, while satellites are becoming increasingly cost-effective, including some launched by high-altitude planes instead of space rockets.

“At the other end of the scale we are seeing costs coming down. When we’re looking at satellites missions, earth observation, satellite, communications… costs [are] coming down," said Dr Bunn.

“And is it becoming much more accessible for new countries to join the space sector.”

Those smaller space nations like UAE and India are either launching their own satellites or using the facilities of other bigger space nations like Japan. The UAE is scheduled to send its Mars probe Hope to the Red Planet in July 2021, from the Tanegashima Space Centre in Japan.

Space industry officials are keen to point out that together with the widespread fascination for human space travel, the sector is also responsible for producing tangible, real-life benefits that can improve lives.

“The challenge going forward is… how to shine a light equally on those down-to-earth benefits of our space programmes - enabling communications, environmental benefits,” she said.

“Ninety nine per cent of the data you need to generate an accurate forecast is from space. Over 50 per cent of the climate variables we need to even understand climate can only be measured from space.

“Then, equally things like navigation. The ESA doesn't yet have our own navigation system. We’ve had an assessment that if we were to lose the ability to use global satellite navigation systems - the US GPS system - we would incur losses of $1 billion a day.

"So it’s extraordinary. Companies’ economic frameworks are very, very dependent on satellite capability already."

One intended consequence of Maj Al Mansouri’s space mission is the hope that bright young pupils and students might consider a career in science and tech – becoming the brains behind the missions.

It’s such a powerful tool. We had our own astronaut four years ago and the uptake in [UK] schools, the uptake in public interest was absolutely extraordinary,” Dr Bunn said, in reference to Tim Peake, the first British astronaut to walk in space.

Governments across the globe are encouraging their young people to pursue skilled-based jobs – often seen as hard science and maths – to prepare themselves for the future. But in reality, Dr Bunn, who has a PhD in metallurgy, said there were many other opportunities out there.

“The challenge for us is to make the most of the fact that there is an astronaut and to showcase that capability, but to also to convey the message that there are hundreds and thousands of jobs that sit behind every astronaut,” she said.

“Usually science, technology, engineering, mathematics is an important background, but equally geography – you think about earth observation - some of the telecommuncations areas, many disciplines of engineering are very important for space programmes.

“So it’s that message that yes there’s a very high-profile figurehead in that astronaut, but there are hundreds and thousands of job opportunities that sit behind that astronaut.”

Updated: November 4, 2019 07:50 AM

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