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European Space Agency Opens Research Center In UK

November 26, 2008

The European Space Agency (ESA) will soon have a research center in the UK to concentrate on space robotics and climate change science.

The new facility will be based on the Harwell innovation campus in Oxfordshire.

Britain is currently the only major member state of ESA to not host one of its own technical centers.

European science ministers have been meeting at The Hague to approve agency policies and funding. The agreement to open the facility was announced during those meetings.

Senior ESA executive Daniel Sacotte called the agreement a “symbolic moment”.

“It’s important. It shows renewed interest for Britain to be part of ESA, to be involved in space activity; and we welcome that. It’s a new development in our relationship with this very important member state.”

It has taken several years of negotiation to open the center after it became tied up with financial commitments ESA asked the UK to make on some of the agency’s other activities, in particular in the realm of Earth observation.

But Britain was able to agree on a deal and documents were signed giving the center the green light.

It is likely the center will focus on ESA’s flagship space robot program, the ExoMars rover.

“We have been identifying a few sectors of possible activity, including robotics of course; because in the development of the ExoMars program, the industrial role of Great Britain is to develop the robot that will be going and searching for life on the planet Mars,” said Sacotte, the special advisor to ESA’s director general.

It is still unclear exactly how the climate element will be incorporated into the center.

ESA already has a center in Italy dedicated to Earth observation, but Britain has clear expertise in climate science and the agency is keen to exploit that.

The Harwell campus has become a major hub for science and technology businesses.

The Science and Technology Facilities Council, the UK Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) and the Health Protection Agency own the site.

The giant Diamond synchrotron light source is its most visible occupant as well as the UK’s largest investment in science for 30 years. Diamond probes the structure of materials on the finest scales using X-rays.

According to the agreement, the UK will bear the cost of constructing the new research center.

After its completion, it will complement the existing facilities:

  • The European Space Research and Technology Center (ESTEC) in Noordwijk, the Netherlands, is the largest ESA center. Spacecraft are tested at ESTEC before being launched.
  • The European Space Operations Center (ESOC) in Darmstadt, Germany, is the location from where ESA spacecraft are controlled during their missions.
  • Esrin in Frascati, Italy, is the ESA Center for Earth Observation.
  • The European Space Astronomy Centre (ESAC) is esa’s center dedicated to space science and astronomy, and is based in Villanueva de la Canada, Spain.
  • The European Astronaut Center (EAC) trains Europe’s astronauts and is situated in Cologne, Germany.
  • France does not have a research center, but it hosts ESA headquarters in Paris.

Image Caption: The giant Diamond ring is the most visible presence at Harwell. Courtesy Diamond Light Source Ltd

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