The Register taps a foot with boffins under the Lovell Telescope at Bluedot Festival

Ad Astra Tabernamque... but no, we can't dance


The Register braved the mud of Bluedot 2019 to chat to Human Exploration Programme Manager at the UK Space Agency, Libby Jackson, and Professor of Planetary and Space Science at the Open University, Monica Grady.

Both were present in the shadow of the newly UNESCO-ed Lovell Telescope to dispense lectures on space and exploration at the science and music festival.

Blighty to the Moon and another 10 years of the ISS?

Jackson, who has been with the UK Space Agency since 2014, having previously been a mission controller at the European Space Agency (ESA) and director of the agency's Columbus module, was keen to play down some of the more breathless speculation that has been circulating since UK science minister Chris Skidmore announced a statement of intent with US space agency NASA last week.

"Some people put two and two together and got 150," sighed Jackson in reaction to suggestions that British boots could be on the Moon before long. She went on to explain to us that the NASA deal was about telecommunications, adding that "we're also looking at telecommunications in the Lunar Gateway."

And, of course, the UK Space Agency hopes to play its part in that Lunar Gateway, either through the European Space Agency or NASA. Assuming the thing survives the headlong rush to put some new footprints on the Moon by 2024.

Jackson observed with a laugh: "To get to 2024 is going to require a lot of resources from... somewhere."

Of course, while many, including Jackson, regard the Moon as a "stepping stone" for learning to deal with the difficulties of living in deep space, the immediate challenge for the UK Space Agency, as far as human spaceflight is concerned, is getting British astronaut Major Tim Peake back on the International Space Station.

Jackson reminded us of the comment by ESA's director general that "It is the intention that everyone flies again," adding, "and that would include Tim."

She also pointed out that, regardless of the ongoing lunar shenanigans, "the International Space Station is expected now to be in orbit until at least 2030" and that "the international agreements to extend it beyond 2024 are in the process of getting sorted out".

Those do, of course, depend on ESA's council of ministers opting to keep the funding flowing. NASA, of course, would dearly like to wash its hands of the ageing outpost by 2024 and make things a bit more commercial.

And in response to the spectre of Brexit? "The UK is committed to being a part of the European Space Agency, the exploration programme doesn't have any EU parts like Galileo or Copernicus."

So that's alright then.

The robots are coming (carrying rocks and moondust)

The UK, of course, has its fingers in many science pies, and Professor of Planetary and Space Science Monica Grady was keen to talk about scientists getting their hands on bits of the Moon and even Mars.

Grady, whom readers will remember jumping for joy when the robotic probe Philae landed on comet 67P / Churyumov–Gerasimenko, told us the prospect of exploring the Moon again and upcoming sample return missions from Mars had her excited about exploration in the coming decades.

"China," she added, "is hoping to bring material back [from the Moon] within the next year". The Chang'e 5 mission, currently tentatively scheduled for the end of 2019 could bring back as much as 2kg of Lunar samples if the ambitious project succeeds.

Grady was also excited about the ESA / Roscosmos ExoMars Rover, named "Rosalind Franklin" for the DNA pioneer, and its ability to "drill deep below the area which ultraviolet radiation penetrates, with a view to hoping that it will be able to tap into ice."

NASA's Mars 2020 mission, however, has the potential to really excite since the Curiosity-clone will have the ability to collect samples as it trundles around the Martian surface. Grady explained to us "it's going to collect about 30 samples, which will be left in caches."

"What I'm hoping," Grady told us, "is that we'll get some bedrock - some of the initial crystalline material that hasn't been altered. But I'd also like to see some of the hydrothermal and clay minerals with the alteration."

A subsequent joint ESA and NASA mission would then retrieve those caches for return to Earth in a mission "planned possibly for 2026, possibly for 2028" meaning, should the mission go ahead and if the material is brought to Earth, scientists could have the samples as soon as 2032.

Grady is more optimistic than we cynical vultures and sternly corrected us with "when the materials come back."

She is equally clear on the ongoing niggling between some planetary scientists on issue of Pluto being a planet, minor planet, or just a Kuiper Belt object, noting that when it was first observed it was spherical and appeared to have the properties of a planet, "but since then, our observing techniques have got a lot better."

She went on to point out that a planet must have cleared its own space and "Pluto clearly didn't."

You went where?

The Bluedot 2019 festival ran from 18 to 21 July and featured an eclectic line-up of music from the likes of Hot Chip through New Order and Kraftwerk (although the Easy Star All-Stars performing the "Dub Side of the Moon" was a thing to behold by itself.)

A very science-heavy programme during the day, (including talks from the likes of science historian James Burke in addition to the two aforementioned boffins) as well as plenty of kid-focused science activities, make the event a winner for those who want to learn and rave.

A successful attempt by Professor Tim O'Brien and his team to bounce signals off the Moon before a showing of Apollo 11 was a notable highlight, even if the rain and subsequent mudbath were not. ®

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