UKSEDS National Student Space Conference 2017

The 2017 UKSEDS National Student Space Conference took place last weekend at the University of Exeter and I was delighted to be asked to give a presentation.

UKSEDS, the acronym of the ‘UK Students for the Exploration and Development of Space’, is a charity dedicated to running events for space students and graduates. It is the UK branch of global community who have the aim of promoting space, space exploration and research.

The National Student Space Conference is in its 29th year, and 2017 was the first time I’d attended. I began the Saturday morning with a panel discussion on Exploration versus Exploitation with Dr David Parker from the European Space Agency, Cathrine Armour who leads the South West Centre of Excellence in Satellite Applications and Andy Bacon from Thales Alenia Space UK.

One of the key points raised in the panel surrounded the topic’s title, and that it wasn’t a contest between exploration and exploitation, but rather that exploration is generally followed up with exploitation e.g. even in the 19th and 20th century explorations were politically motivated. However exploration is risky, and so it may be difficult to produce favourable outcomes that can be exploited.

Traditionally, commercial organisations were risk averse and therefore exploration has often been supported by public bodies. The exploitation came later from commercial organisations, but there’s now an increased appetite for risk through venture and crowd funding with space being a particular focus.

We also have hindsight of how we’ve altered planet Earth, and so need to apply this to space where we’ve completed our first survey of the solar system. Exploitation may not be far away as there are companies already aiming to mine asteroids, for example. So alongside investing in science and technology, we also need to invest in the governance to ensure that any future exploitation is undertaken responsibly.

Closer to Earth, it can be considered that we’ve not yet fully exploiting the potential of orbiting satellites. For example, we could use them for generating solar energy as a twenty four hour resource. So whilst exploration does tend to proceed exploitation, in fact it is probably more accurate to say we loop between the two with each providing feedback into the other.

My presentation session was between the coffee break and lunch. I was last up and followed Cathrine Armour, Matt Cosby from Goonhilly Earth Station Ltd and Dr Lucy Berthoud from the University of Bristol & Thales Alenia Space UK. My presentation was on “Innovations in Earth observation” and can be found here.

I particularly enjoyed Lucy’s talk where she posed the question – Is there life on Mars? She also had a crowd pleasing set of practical experiments involving dry ice and a rock from a local beach, which was a bit daunting to follow! Whilst Lucy concluded that Mars has the elements needed for life to exist in terms of nutrients, an energy source and liquid water, any life would likely to be microscopic.

However, there are large costs associated with us visiting Mars to confirm this. Ignoring the obvious cost of the flight, the decontamination aspect is huge. As mission planners have to avoid both forward and backward contamination, i.e., us contaminating Mars and the material brought back contaminating the Earth. This brings us back around to the morning panel and why exploration always tends to come first, supported by national or international bodies.

Overall, I had a great time at the Conference and would wholly recommend any students who have interest in space join UKSEDS. Membership is free and it can give you access to great events, opportunities and contacts. You can join here!