Wannabe space 'superpower' UK tosses £1.6M at eight research projects

Very world-beating funding

With the noble goal "to grow the UK as a global space superpower," the UK Space Agency (UKSA) has scraped together a princely £1.6 million ($1.9 million) to be divvied up between eight research programs.

This is part of "the government's strategy to use our £5 billion investment in space science and technology to grow our £16.5 billion commercial space sector to create the businesses, jobs and opportunities of tomorrow, and the space clusters from Cornwall to Scotland," said George Freeman, Minister of State at the newly formed Department of Science, Innovation and Technology.

But the sum is laughable when compared to the $32.33 billion in federal funding available to NASA for fiscal 2023, and even worse when you divide that £1.6 million into eight chunks. "Superpower" indeed.

Still, the UKSA saw fit to shout about the funding to coincide with Mars Day, which is March 7 by the way.

In fairness, the projects targeted all have purposeful goals from space biology and "in-situ resource utilisation" to nuclear-based propulsion.

The University of Exeter in Devon will receive £363,000 for its "fluorescent deep space petri-pod (FDSPP) flight readiness" program, described thus: "This project aims to support future planetary exploration by addressing the harmful impact of the space environment on human health. It will establish innovative, miniaturised equipment that will enable scientists to perform biology experiments in deep space, remotely. Designed to give important readouts of health in model systems (cells, microbes, microscopic animals), this equipment will help understand the biological effects of space and the effectiveness of different therapies, to help develop medical treatments for astronauts."

The University of Southampton in Hampshire will get a £200,000 share to pursue an "all-in-one Mars in-situ resource utilisation system using non-thermal plasma." This explores "the feasibility of using non-thermal plasmas for removing biological and chemical contaminants in extracted water from Mars and generating oxygen and rocket fuel from the Martian atmosphere."

The university is also receiving £195,000 to explore "integrated fission-based power systems for electric propulsion," developing a "coherent design concept of a nuclear fission power system to drive space exploration to be integrated with a high-power electric propulsion technology."

Buckinghamshire's Open University is being granted £400,000 split evenly between "novel infrared technology for exploring Mars and advance reconnaissance" and a "microwave heating and oxygen extraction experiment." The first builds on "previous work developing a new technology for use of IR detectors in space, by exposing a new form of detector to radiation levels that would be encountered in a typical Mars mission and assessing the effect on performance."

The second "extends the development of the microwave heating demonstrator payload that investigated the potential of microwave heating for lunar construction and resource extraction, such as oxygen and water from lunar soil, to support sustainable surface exploration on the Moon."

MAC SciTech in South Shields is to receive a poxy £68,000 to investigate "reactors for off-planet life support systems and Martian in-situ resource utilisation." This project focuses on "the design and function of the various components of reactor systems designed to recycle breathing gases (carbon dioxide and hydrogen) in off-planet environments such as low Earth orbit, lunar or on Mars. The technology offers efficient, catalyst-free, low maintenance gas processing designed to improve upon and replace existing gas processing systems."

Bangor University in Wales gets £200,000 for its work on a "nuclear thermal fuel system and thermal-based characterisation," which aims to "demonstrate the additive manufacturing of metallic and ceramic zirconium-containing nuclear fuels and assess their performance."

Oxfordshire-based Thales Alenia Space is also developing in-situ resource utilisation under the banner of DISRUPT-2 and has received £169,000. This will "allow more efficient selection of Moon rock for oxygen extraction as well as extraction of other resources such as metal. It will improve a technique for use on the Moon's surface called X-Ray Diffraction/X-Ray Fluorescence where the Moon rock is illuminated with X-rays and the rock type is identified by the way that the X-rays are diffracted or by the way the X-rays cause the rock to fluoresce."

Dr Paul Bate, CEO of the UK Space Agency, commented: "The concept of exploring deeper into space – whether that means returning to the lunar surface through the Artemis programme, or working out how we could travel to, and survive on, Mars and beyond – is a global ambition that has been growing since humanity's first forays into space in the 1950s.

"Supporting technologies that make that ambition a reality will help raise the international profile of UK space skills and expertise. Not only does this naturally unlock business opportunities all along the supply chain, but it helps inspire young people to consider the possibility of a career in space without having to leave the UK.

"This is an incredibly exciting time for the space exploration sector, and I look forward to seeing how far the results of these projects will reach."

So while the funding is pennies – to be expected from a country sliding into irrelevance that can't even launch a satellite – perhaps some of these projects may play a bit part in the future of space exploration. But superpower? They have to be joking. ®

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