The Space Park Leicester: a new chapter of Leicester in Space

Professor Ken Pounds reflects on the long association that the city of Leicester has had with space exploration, as the new Space Park Leicester continues the same spirit of invention and discovery.

The announcement of significant Government funding for the Space Park Leicester marks the opening of a new chapter in the long association of Space with Leicester. That link extends over most of the 60 years of the Space Era, a human adventure that began with the launch of the Soviet Union’s Sputnik satellite in October 1957. Less well known is that British scientists had begun to explore outer space eight months earlier, with the successful launch of the first Skylark sub-orbital rocket in Woomera, South Australia. The initial science aim was to directly measure the temperature, ionisation and winds in the upper atmosphere (where a complementary military interest was very useful in gaining Treasury support). Ultraviolet and x-radiation from the Sun played a key role in the ‘high altitude weather’, and developing rocket-borne instruments to measure those fluxes was my task as a PhD student in the Rocket Group at UCL.

The international response to Sputnik was dramatic, with the formation of NASA in 1958 leading to a Space Race with the Soviet Union, where human spaceflight (and national prestige) was the priority. Although, sensibly, opting out of that competition, an influential university space science community, and rapidly growing aerospace industry, allowed UK researchers to compete successfully in the new areas of study offered by deep space probes and orbiting observatories. While initially working mainly in NASA programmes, the formation of ESRO (forerunner of ESA) in 1961 offered new flight opportunities. The new Space Research Group at Leicester, was one of the first to fly with ESRO, beginning a long – and continuing - role in a European space science programme now second to none. The international outlook of the Leicester group continued with the X-ray Astronomy Group leading UK participation in other major collaborations with Japan (1987), Germany (1990).

A major expansion of the scientific scope of the university space programme began during the final decade of the millennium, with a long-standing interest in the ionosphere being extended with the use of spacecraft to take direct measurements of planetary atmospheres, make global measurements of our own planet, and follow up intriguing flashes on gamma radiation originating in the death of stars way beyond our Galaxy.

The essential build-up of technical facilities was met in 1998 with the on-campus Space Research Centre, now part of the Michael Atiyah building. Shortly afterwards, a successful bid to the Millennium Commission, in partnership with Leicester City Council and the Leicester Chamber of Commerce, provided key funding for the National Space Centre, opened in 2001 and providing a unique facility to extend the fascination of space exploration to a new generation.

It is interesting to note that funding and support for the new Space Park Leicester is following the same pattern of a partnership of common interests, set to deliver another – and unique – chapter in the Leicester Space Enterprise.

Professor Ken Pounds, Emeritus Professor of Space Physics

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