UK Space Agency will pay a new CEO £125,000 to run non-existent space programme

Also: NASA to send another astronaut up in a Soyuz, Mars Express has its head in the clouds


In brief Fancy a career change? Be quick, and the chief exec's desk at the UK Space Agency could be yours. The permanent full-time position with a salary of £125,000 is likely to be challenging as the UK seeks to maintain its position as a space-based international leader in the wake of ructions such as the country's departure from the EU.

The agency is a tentacle of the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS) and the successful applicant "will have a proven ability to handle an intellectually challenging agenda that is high on the Prime Minister's list of priorities."

Presumably that agenda will include an item stating "keep a straight face when Johnson talks about the Brexit Satellite replacement for Galileo."

The previous incumbent, Graham Turnock, announced his departure in January after four years in the post. If all goes to plan, the replacement will be in the post in time to witness the first satellite launched from the British Isles in 2022.

NASA 'naut nabs Soyuz seat

In an impressive demonstration of faith in SpaceX, NASA has confirmed that it will be launching one of its astronauts aboard a Russian Soyuz on 9 April despite a scheduled 22 April SpaceX Crew-2 mission from Florida.

The deal has been done through commercial outfit Houston-based Axiom Space. In return for NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei flying on a Soyuz MS-18, "NASA will continue to work with Axiom to fly a non-NASA astronaut Axiom designates on a US commercial spacecraft."

The contract "contains no exchange of funds," according to NASA, conveniently dodging around the thorny issue of sending US taxpayer cash to Russia. Who exactly that "non-NASA astronaut" might be is also up for some debate; perhaps the unfortunate cosmonaut bumped from MS-18. The agency was also careful not specify which commercial spacecraft would be used, leaving the way open to a seat in Boeing's Calamity Capsule rather than a ride on Musk's missile.

Getting an astronaut ready to fly in a month will be no mean feat, although Vande Hei does have experience of the Soyuz, having made his first flight in 2017 in a mission to the International Space Station that included four spacewalks.

The astronaut joined NASA in 2009, just before the Space Shuttles were consigned to museums. Oddly, NASA had no problem binning them in favour of relying on Russian transport. Now, "to ensure continuous US presence aboard the International Space Station" it appears old habits die hard, despite a US alternative being available once again.

Mars Express – cloud spotting by the mission that keeps on giving

Amid all the new spacecraft arriving at the red planet recently, ESA's veteran orbiter, Mars Express, reminded scientists that there remained plenty of life in the old dog with observations of a cloud of water ice emerging near the 20km-tall Arsia Mons volcano.

Using the Visual Monitoring Camera (VMC), which was fitted to the spacecraft to confirm the departure of the Beagle 2 lander, scientists have been able to study the evolution of the cloud which, at its largest, measures 1,800km in length and 150km across. Over the course of several months, the cloud begins growing before every sunrise then expands westwards and detaches from its initial location on the western slope of Arsia Mons.

It is then pulled westwards by high-altitude winds before evaporating thanks to the increase in temperature caused by the rising Sun.

While the VMC has a resolution similar to a 2003-era webcam, its wide field of view coupled with the longevity of Mars Express and the ability of the team to point the repurposed camera at the right place and time over and over again has proven a boon to scientists. Having started life "as a bit of fun" and following outreach by a Mars Express team curious to see if the device could be used, the VMC is now very much part of the science payload.

"These findings really demonstrate the strengths of Mars Express – its unique orbit, longevity, persistent quality, and ability to adapt as it tackles the mysteries of Mars," said project scientist Dmitrij Titov. ®

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