Aerospace & Defence

New funding ensures UK role in global exploration to the Moon, Mars, and Venus

14th February 2024
Paige West

UK scientists and engineers are set to play a role in global missions to the Moon, Mars, and Venus following new funding from the UK Space Agency.

The Space Science and Exploration Bilateral Programme was set to assist Royal Holloway in developing software for the Indian Space Agency (ISRO) Chandrayaan-2 orbiter to detect ice beneath the surface of the lunar south pole.

Another initiative involved the University of Leicester leading on a Raman spectroscopy instrument for iSpace’s commercial rover and lander missions, which aimed to investigate water ice on the Moon. This research was crucial in determining whether water ice could serve as a resource for more extended lunar exploration.

Additional projects receiving a portion of the £7.4 million funding included collaborations between the Open University, and the universities of Sussex, Aberdeen, and Cambridge with NASA, the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA).

This announcement was made in conjunction with the Global Space and Technology Convention (GSTC) in Singapore, which aimed to highlight the rapidly expanding space sector in Asia and the potential for international cooperation. These projects, together with a UK delegation at the GSTC, underscored the UK's commitment to supporting its world-class scientists in partnering with global counterparts as outlined in the National Space Strategy.

Andrew Griffith MP, Minister for Space at the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology, announced: “From exploring water on Mars and the possibility of sustained human activity on the red planet, to how galaxies evolved over time, our more than £7m investment is pushing the boundaries of space discovery and putting the UK at the heart of some of the most important global space missions.

“With top UK universities from Sussex to Aberdeen leading these groundbreaking endeavours, our country is at the heart of exploring beyond our planet, working with partners in Japan, India, North America and around the world, and growing our economies.”

Dr Paul Bate, Chief Executive of the UK Space Agency, stated: “These projects present an opportunity for UK science to make crucial contributions to ground-breaking global missions that will deepen our understanding of the Moon and our neighbouring planets.

“This funding, which builds on previous early-stage awards, will help catalyse international investment into the UK space sector and highlights the value we place on sharing knowledge and expertise with our counterparts overseas to break the boundaries of space exploration.

“The Global Space and Technology Convention in Singapore is the ideal setting to share this news and showcase the benefits of expanding our work with global partners.”

The selected projects, following an initial £400,000 funding round in 2022, showcased UK scientific excellence in critical areas of space science and exploration technology, including detector and hardware development, pipeline processing, optics, and spectroscopy. They also offered opportunities for close collaboration with international counterparts making progress in similar areas.

Royal Holloway's work would support ISRO's ongoing Chandrayaan programme, which began in 2003 and had been making groundbreaking steps in developing our understanding of lunar resource utilisation for deeper Moon exploration. In August of the previous year, its Chandrayaan-3 mission became the world's first to successfully land on the lunar south pole.

The iSpace commercial mission was to see experts at the University of Leicester lead the development of the Raman spectroscopy instrument. This instrument was designed to analyse and identify molecules, supporting the Japanese programme to establish resource utilisation infrastructure on the Moon that could benefit future lunar exploration missions.

The projects

Chandrayaan-2 and Shukrayaan (Royal Holloway and ISRO, India) - £306,000    

Processing of multi-band radar and developing analysis software for missions to detect lunar south pole sub-surface ice and map surface of Venus.

Star-X (University of Leicester and NASA, USA) - £650,000  

High-level science data products, accessible via a web portal, and a UK data archive, for the study of Universe formation using the time-domain method and ‘multi-messenger’ astrophysics.

FIR missions (University of Sussex and NASA, USA) - £1.1 million 

Provision of superconducting detectors, detector systems, optics, filters, and data pipelines for a probe mission to investigate formation of planetary systems and the evolution of galaxies.

HABIT (University of Aberdeen and JAXA, Japan) - £320,000 

Provision of instrument monitoring air and ground temperature, wind, humidity, and hydration state of salts, for a Mars rover/lander studying water cycle, chemistry, and habitability.

I-MIM (The Open University and CSA, Canada) - £2 million 

High performance detectors for the Mars multispectral and stereo imager for the International Mars Ice Mapper mission to map accessible water ice deposits on the Martian surface. 

Lunar Spectroscopy (University of Leicester and iSpace, Japan) - £1.5 million 

Lead development of the raman analytical spectroscopy instrument, based on the raman laser spectrometer, for commercial small lunar landers and rovers that will explore the lunar surface for space resource utilisation.

CosmoCube (University of Cambridge and NASA, USA) - £1.5 million 

Lead for project, payload and science, mission and space platform for a cube-sat that will deploy a precision radiometer to measure spectral distortions in the Universe’s cosmic microwave background.

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