This solar sail developed in 2005 is the basis of the Sunjammer project, one of three missions NASA and the UK Space Agency will collaborate on (CREDIT: NASA)

UKSA and NASA to collaborate on major missions

The UK and the US will collaborate on three major space projects launching missions to the Sun and Mars.

Mason Peck, chief technologist at NASA, visited space facilities and companies in the UK this week to see the work being carried out following recent agreements to cooperate on the projects by the two countries.

The first collaborative mission scheduled for launch is the Sunjammer Project, a solar sail demonstration due to take off in 2014, which will be followed by NASA’s Insight mission to the Red Planet in 2016 and the European Space Agency (ESA) Solar Orbiter mission in 2017.

“Cooperation and collaboration are critical to meet increasingly global challenges, and our partnership with the United Kingdom in space exploration and technology development is essential to meeting common goals,” said Peck.

“I’m delighted I have the opportunity to see first-hand the good work UK space companies are doing, and continue building this strong partnership.”

NASA’s Sunjammer mission will fly towards the Sun primarily to demonstrate the agency’s solar sail technology, but UK scientists at Imperial College London and MSSL are developing the mission’s magnetometer (MAGIC) and wind analyser (SWAN) – instruments that will study space weather and prove new technology in the field.

Whilst in space , the UK instruments on-board Sunjammer will monitor different aspects of space weather, paving the way to a better understanding of its processes and their influence on spaceborne and ground-based systems and assessing its potential to harm property or human health.

The Insight mission will also feature an instrument funded by the UK Space Agency, the SEIS-SP seismometer, designed by space scientists at Imperial College London and the University of Oxford to investigate the interior structure and processes of Mars.

The SEIS-SP seismometer will listen for Marsquakes and use that information to map the boundaries between the rock layers inside the planet to help determine if the planet has a liquid or solid core and provide some clues as to why its surface is not divided up into tectonic plates as on Earth.

And in 2017 the Solar Orbiter will travel closer to the Sun than any previous mission, studying the star’s Polar regions for the first time. It will also be synchronous with the Sun’s rotation, providing long duration observations for the first time and enabling the mission to observe the build-up of events such as solar storms.

The UK Space Agency recently brokered an agreement for NASA to provide an instrument for the UK-led Solar Wind Analyser (SWA) suite of instruments, led by UCL’s Mullard Space Science Laboratory, which will measure the different elements of the solar wind and characterise their behaviour under different solar conditions.

Dr David Parker, chief executive of the UK Space Agency, said: “The UK has a long history of playing crucial roles in big US missions and a strong relationship with our colleagues at NASA. Space is big business for both the UK and global economies and an increasingly integral part of our lives.

“If we want to continue this success and push the boundaries of exploration, we must continue to foster the industry’s growth through strategic investment and close partnership with other space-faring nations.”

Also under construction and due for launch in 2018 is the James Webb Space Telescope – a partnership between NASA, ESA and the Canadian Space Agency for which the UK is developing the MIRI camera and spectrometer.

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