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Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Could Low-Cost Space Missions Keep Astronomy Aiming High?

Royal Astronomical Society
April 20, 2011
Whether in the present so-called 'age of austerity' or more generous times, arguing for funds for space exploration can sometimes be hard and constrained budgets mean that some excellent scientific proposals never see the light of day. On Tuesday 19 April, in his presentation at the National Astronomy Meeting in Llandudno, Wales, Leicester University astronomer Professor Martin Barstow will argue that a solution could be found in the form of low-cost space missions with a price tag of £10-20m.

There is an enormous dichotomy in the costs of access to space using various methods. NASA, ESA and other space agencies have a range of satellite programmes providing mission opportunities that deliver several years of data, but with price-tags of £100M and upwards. Satellite mission opportunities occur typically at a rate of only one every 2-3 years. Therefore, responses to mission calls usually result in massive oversubscription factors and many projects simply never happen.
Sub-orbital programmes through sounding rockets are more frequent and allow scientific data to be obtained for a few million pounds. However they only deliver a few minutes observing time above the atmosphere, restricting the scientific goals that can be achieved. For a typical astronomy payload, observations are limited to the brightest targets, usually one in any flight, and re-flight opportunities are quickly exhausted. Balloon programmes offer longer duration flights, up to a few days, but are only suitable for gamma-ray, visible light or infra-red studies. X-ray, extreme-UV and UV wavelength radiation emitted by astronomical objects does not penetrate far enough into the atmosphere to be detectable by instruments on balloons.
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