The UK government will invest £30m into space science and technology to ensure that the UK continues playing a leading role.
Scientists are hopeful that through the Ariel mission – anticipated to launch in 2029 – we will be able to gain a deeper understanding of the connection between a planet’s chemistry, its evolution, and its host star. The mission is set to achieve this by characterising the atmospheres of 1,000 previously discovered exoplanets.
This is the first space mission dedicated to this level of analysis and researchers believe it will offer a significant advancement in our understanding of what exoplanets are composed of, how they emerged, and how they develop.
The data generated throughout this mission will be available to the scientific community and the general public at frequent intervals during the planned four-year operational phase.
The Ariel mission
Ariel was initially proposed by an international consortium led by University College London (UCL) and was chosen by the European Space Agency (ESA) out of 26 proposals that were put forward as candidates for the next ‘medium class mission’ in its science programme. The UK will play the leading role in the science of the mission and head up a consortium of 17 countries constructing the mission’s payload module.
The £30m has been made available through the UK Space Agency’s National Space Science Programme and adds to the £6m the Agency has already supplied to support UK teams throughout Ariel’s study phase.
This investment will safeguard the UK’s scientific leadership of the mission and will incorporate the distribution of Ariel’s payload module, cryogenic cooler, and optical ground support equipment, as well as science operations and data processing. This funding is the first long-term commitment that the UK government has made to space science since the publication of the National Space Strategy. The UK’s leadership role will present an exceptional opportunity for the UK space sector’s academic base.
Commitment to UK space science and technology
Science Minister George Freeman explained: “This is an incredibly important commitment for UK space science and technology, marking a major milestone for the National Space Strategy and boosting our ambitions to grow our £16.5bn commercial space sector.
“By investing £30m and taking the helm of the entire Ariel consortium – the first time in a decade that we have secured leadership for a mission of this magnitude – we are putting the UK at the heart of international space research, providing new opportunities for space businesses and academics across the country.”
UK organisations lending their expertise to this mission include University College London (UCL), Cardiff University, the University of Oxford, and the Science and Technology Facilities Council’s (STFC) RAL Space at Harwell Space Cluster in Oxfordshire.
Professor Giovanna Tinetti, Mission Consortium Principal Investigator for Ariel at UCL, said: “Ariel will be transformational in helping us understand the planets in our galaxy. By studying hundreds of diverse worlds in different environments, we will see our own planet in context, giving us a better sense of why Earth formed as it did.
“We are very grateful to the UK Space Agency and the UK government for their continued support and commitment in advancing planetary science, helping us understand worlds beyond our solar system as well as within it.”
UK institutions leading the way
Paul Eccleston, Ariel Consortium Programme Manager and Chief Engineer at RAL Space, added: “We welcome the agreement and the commitment from the UK Space Agency to enable this collaboration. I am delighted that the UK is taking a leading role in the mission and proud of the progress the consortium has already made to design the payload. These ties are only set to strengthen as we progress towards launch.”
The group at RAL Space will construct and test the Ariel payload module, managing hardware contributions from other consortium partners, while the STFC Technology department is building the £5.5m cryogenic active cooling system.
Researchers at UCL and the University of Cardiff will lead performance analysis, testing and fine-tuning of the complex algorithms required to process the data returned from Ariel. Finally, the University of Oxford group will provide the equipment to test Ariel’s payload telescope and optical elements.
Günther Hasinger, ESA’s Director of Science, concluded: “Ariel is a very important mission for ESA’s Space Science programme, and among our world-leading fleet of missions that study extrasolar planets.
“This commitment by the UK Space Agency and our scientific partner institutions in the UK is a big step forward for Ariel, and we are looking forward to working together closely on implementing the mission.