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Government to pump millions into space research

New funding for space mission Photo: UKSA

The UK Space Agency has just announced new funding for a project to help study weather in space.

Called the Solar wind Magnetosphere Ionosphere Link Explorer - or SMILE - the mission will study how the solar wind interacts with the Earth’s magnetosphere, which can effect satellites, power grids and communications networks.

The new funding from the Agency brings the total UK investment in the SMILE instruments to £10 million and will build on the significant expertise found in universities across the country in the design and development of cutting-edge space science.

Below: Why studying space weather is important

The region is already heavily involved in solar research, a satellite built in Stevenage which will study the sun so we can learn more about our closest star and its impact on Earth.

The European Space Agency (ESA) has built the Solar Orbiter at Airbus in Hertfordshire.

Until now it's been very hard for scientists to understand how the sun creates and controls its environment.

This satellite will fly closer to the sun than the nearest planet, Mercury.

Below: Watch a report by ITV News Anglia's Elodie Harper

The Science Minister also announced the UK’s agreement with partners including the European Space Agency in a second mission, called Planetary Transits and Oscillations of stars (PLATO), which will search for Earth-like planets orbiting alien stars.

The UK Space Agency has invested £25 million in innovative science for the PLATO mission, scientifically led by the University of Warwick, but it also involves researchers from the Institute of Astronomy in Cambridge and the Open University in Milton Keynes.

Science Minister Chris Skidmore said:

These two exciting space missions are brilliant examples of the UK’s space industry’s innovation and expertise.

Space weather – such as solar wind – is a potential threat to our communications systems here on Earth so this research examining how the wind interacts with our planet’s electromagnetic system is important. Meanwhile, work to discover Earth-like planets around other stars may eventually lead to us answering the question of whether extra-terrestrial life exists.

This £35 million of space science funding is part of our ambitious Industrial Strategy, boosting research investment and helping the UK’s space sector to thrive.

National funding for these missions is in addition to the UK’s regular contributions to the European Space Agency’s science programme.

– Chris Skidmore

The UK funding is to develop a Soft X-ray Imager (SXI) instrument, being led by the University of Leicester, with scientific mission leadership at UCL Mullard Space Science Laboratory, and support from the Open University, ahead of launch in 2023.

Planned to launch in 2026, PLATO will monitor thousands of relatively bright stars over a large area of the sky, searching for tiny, regular dips in brightness as their planets cross in front of them, temporarily blocking out a small fraction of the starlight.

Astronomers have so far found over 3,000 planets beyond our Solar System which are called exoplanets, but none, as yet, has been shown to be truly Earth-like in terms of its size and distance from a Sun similar to our own.