U.K. Science Minister Touts New Space Tech Investments

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PARIS — British Science Minister David Willetts, who seems never to leave home without a new space investment to disclose, did it again Jan. 24, announcing some $95 million in new spending on government-industry cost-shared technologies and an enhanced robotics effort.

Addressing the Policy Exchange in London, Willetts said the British-led rover vehicle scheduled for launch in 2018 as part of the European Space Agency’s ExoMars mission with Russia will travel farther, and conduct more science, than NASA’s larger Curiosity rover that has been on the surface of Mars since August.

“It was an extraordinary feat of engineering” to land Curiosity using the SkyCrane system, Willetts said. But the rover itself is “largely controlled from the Earth, with a delay of at least seven minutes as instructions travel to Mars via radio. The European Mars rover vehicle, due to land in 2018, is more autonomous, using mainly British technology to enable it to travel further during the martian day and therefore carry out more investigations during its design life.”

Willetts announced a government investment of 35 million British pounds ($55 million) in the creation of centers of excellence in robotics and autonomous systems.

An additional 25 million pounds will be invested in the National Space Technology Programme, which was created in May 2011 with 10 million pounds of initial funding that attracted 17 million pounds of private-sector and institutional co-financing for projects including space nuclear power and new-generation satellite propulsion.

“Early analysis suggests the return to the economy from this investment of 10 million pounds will be between 50 million and 75 million pounds,” Willetts said. The new money will permit the start of projects that were not selected in the first round in 2011.

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