Science & Environment

Britain attracted to microgravity

Italian astronaut Paolo Nespoli conducting experiments on the space station
Image caption Britain could join other nations in participating in microgravity research on the ISS

Britain has indicated it will join the European Space Agency's (Esa) microgravity research programme.

The roughly 15m euros (£12m), four-year commitment would give UK investigators access to facilities like sounding rockets, drop towers and even the International Space Station (ISS).

The announcement was made at Esa's Ministerial Council in Naples.

Research ministers from across Europe have been meeting to set the organisation's programmes and budgets.

The UK statement is a small one on the scale of the really big decisions being made at this meeting, but it is a significant step for British microgravity scientists who have been campaigning to get their discipline a higher profile.

'Brilliant news'

Participation in the European Life and Physical Sciences (Elips) programme is subject to final negotiations, but the UK science minister David Willetts said he had been convinced by the arguments in favour of joining.

"There are two bits of Elips that we are particularly interested in. One is this issue of ageing and the physiological processes that an astronaut goes through in space that enables people to model and understand ageing. The other is the study of advanced materials," the minister told the BBC.

Studying systems and processes in the absence of gravity gives scientists a unique perspective. In an Earth laboratory, gravity pulls hard on everything; but if the notions of "up" and "down" can be removed - even for a few seconds - then some unusual things start to happen.

Gases and liquids that are heated do not rise and sink as they would normally, and suspended particles do not settle out into neat layers of different sizes. By removing the "mask" of gravity, it then becomes possible to study the effects of other forces more easily.

This type of knowledge, which is being pursued most vigorously on the space station, is helping to develop new vaccines and crops, and even to understanding how the interior of the Earth behaves.

Assuming negotiations do not take an awkward turn on the final day of the Naples meeting on Wednesday, the UK will enter Elips at a level broadly proportional to a quarter of its GDP position at Esa, which equates to 3.75m euros (£3m) per year.

Image caption Microgravity's effects on humans - and other lifeforms - are of interest back on Earth

Britain last considered joining Elips in 2002. A review undertaken by Prof Bill Wakeham recommended membership, but the then government decided to put its priorities elsewhere. Three years ago, the UK Space Agency (UKSA) raised the issue again and convened several meetings to assess interest.

Groups like the UK Space Biomedical Advisory Committee (SBAC) have been pushing hard to get an Esa subscription approved. Membership will make it much easier for British scientists to propose experiments and to get access to facilities like a zero-G plane, which generates short periods of weightlessness by flying a series of parabolas in the sky.

Scientists would though still have to go through the usual channels of winning grants from the Research Councils to support their experiments. “We can get them access to facilities; they have now got to justify their science in the usual way,” said David Williams, the chief executive of the UKSA.

Kevin Fong, the former chair of SBAC, commented: "This is brilliant news. Having spent so many years trying to further the UK's involvement in programmes of human spaceflight it is great to see things finally moving in the right direction.

"Exploration is what we do; it's part of what makes us human. The next challenge of course will be that of taking the unique insight afforded by partnership with international space agencies and turning that into innovation and new - genuinely disruptive - technologies." and follow me on Twitter: @BBCAmos

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