Democratisation of Space – ESOF 2016

Twinkle was invited to take part at a session on the democratisation of space, as part of the EuroScience Open Forum (ESOF) 2016 in Manchester last week. ESOF is a biennial, pan-European, general science conference dedicated to scientific research and innovation. The 2016 meeting in Manchester attracted 4,500 people.

Alongside our own Marcell Tessenyi, the panel comprised:

  • Prof Alan Wells, Vice Chair of the Google Lunar XPRIZE Judging Panel
  • Eike Kircher, Deputy Head of the Technology Office and Head of the Basic Technology Research Programme (TRP) at the European Space Agency’s Directorate of Technical & Quality Management
  • Dr Amara Graps, University of Latvia and Planetary Science Institute and Deep Space Industries Latvia
  • Dr Sarah Roberts, Education Director of the Faulkes Telescope Project

Perhaps the key message that came across from the debate is that the space sector as we know it will change. The affordable technology available today puts access to space missions within reach of small, national space programmes, research institutions and private enterprise alike.

For the Twinkle team, it was a very interesting to hear the viewpoints of the other panellists. For example, we heard how ESA is supporting some of their member states through CubeSat programmes, and that the Agency sees the potential of CubeSats or small satellites as tools to enhance the value of their larger missions. Essentially, while large missions (e.g. interplanetary probes) will remain within the remit of the large space agencies, small missions are very well suited for independent development for commercial applications or for niche scientific research.

One of the points Marcell made during the debate was that the democratisation of data-access will be enabled by independent projects. At present, it’s mainly the best-funded scientists from countries with well-established space programmes that have access to data from space missions. As part of our funding strategy, Twinkle will provide commercial access to exoplanet data from the satellite to scientists around the world at affordable rates.

We were also interested to have a progress update on the Google Lunar XPRIZE, a race to land the first commercial robotic spacecraft on the Moon. To win the prize, teams must have less than 10% governmental funding and so, like Twinkle, they have needed to find new ways of funding a space mission. Two teams now have launch contracts and hope to complete their mission to the lunar surface by the end of 2017. The Twinkle team wishes them every success.

The other thing that came across in the discussion is that space is genuinely becoming more democratised through the involvement of the public, teachers and students in real space research. The Faulkes Telescope Project has been designed for making astronomical observations from the classroom via a remote connection, so that schoolchildren can experience the process of observing and discovery. In the Gaia-Alerts programme, Faulkes Telescope students make follow-up observations of transient objects spotted by the Gaia satellite to find new supernovae, or black holes swallowing stars.

Our own ORBYTS EduTwinkle programme links PhD students and young post-docs with A-level students to perform original research in support of the Twinkle mission development. With Twinkle’s short timeframe, our ORBYTS students could graduate, do a PhD and end up being the young researchers working on data from the satellite. This has the effect of bringing space closer to young people and may have an influence on their career choices.

All the initiatives discussed at ESOF indicate a trend towards a greater democratisation of the space sector, be it hardware, data or outreach. The Twinkle team is proud to be part of this movement.

Thanks to Europlanet for organising the session at ESOF.