You may have noticed we’ve been flying Xombie a lot lately doing some interesting things. We just finished the third leg of a flight campaign on Xombie that expands the boundaries of what we believe to be the nation’s leading terrestrial landing testbed. We are working hard to deliver a way to test systems at [...]
Happy Independence Day from Masten headquarters! It’s been a while since we released a video but trust us, we’ve been busy! In addition to multiple client projects and bending metal in the shop on yet-to-be-unveiled rocket hardware, we’ve been spending a significant amount of time on Xaero, culminating in a flight to 444 meters AGL [...]
Things are changing. The BBC's Spaceman has been assigned a new ship for his thoughts. So, as of today, this blog is moving to a new home, and taking on a format that you will recognise if you are a regular reader of the BBC News website. The content of the blog won't change, however. You'll still find Spaceman's musings on all things in orbit. But one of the advantages of the change is that it will make it easier for you to follow everything the Spaceman gets up to - online, in video and audio, and soon on Twitter. You can follow me here.
Floating untethered from the shuttle, he hung on to Solar Max’s solar wings at one point in an effort to bring the rogue platform under control. It didn’t quite work but that wasn’t a problem related to the MMU.
The satellite was eventually grabbed by the shuttle arm and its electronics payload repaired. Twenty-seven years on and Nasa is still interested in satellite servicing as a concept. I’ve been hearing here details of the final shuttle mission – STS-135 Atlantis – which will be taking up a test rig that will allow the Dextre robot on the space station to practise techniques for re-fuelling satellites.
The rig holds a series of tools Dextre can pick up to show how the fuel caps on spacecraft could be released in orbit to allow propellant tanks to be topped up. You can see a promotional video here.
It will go into near geosynchronous orbit some 36,000km above the planet, where it will service commercial and government satellites in need of additional fuel. Ultimately, MDA hopes SIS vehicles could also find work in moving satellites to new locations, or in carrying out simple maintenance tasks.
The latter might include releasing the antennas on satellites that had become stuck during deployment. Some satellites carry huge antennas that must be packed for launch and they don’t always unfurl correctly when commanded.
But it is re-fuelling that is the primary motivation behind the first mission.
Thierry Guillemin, the chief technical officer of satellite operator Intelsat, told me that shortage of propellant to keep its telecommunications satellites in position is the main reason the company has to retire the platforms:
”That’s what it is for the majority of them; it’s why re-fuelling is attractive. We actually keep decommissioning perfectly healthy satellites just because they run out of the fuel needed to keep them at their orbital location. To give you an example: in the next couple of years, we will decommission several Intelsat 6 Series spacecraft - satellites that were launched at the end of the 80s, beginning of the 90s. These satellites have more than 20 years in orbit and they are perfectly healthy from the standpoint of both their housekeeping function and their communications payload – but they are running out of fuel.”
Intelsat has agreed to purchase about 1,000kg of the fuel in SIS – about half its total load. It is likely government agencies will take up the other half.
You’ll recall that it was Intelsat last year that temporarily lost control of its Galaxy 15 spacecraft. Dubbed “Zombie-sat” by the media as it drifted past other satellites in orbit, it later became “Phoenix-sat” as engineers managed to regain full command of the wayward platform. But the incident illustrated very well how in-orbit servicing could be a very profitable venture in the future. Thierry Guillemin again:
”Even though we did a pretty good job with Galaxy 15 in avoiding any interference with the 15 or so satellites that we had to fly by, it’s true that the geostationary orbit becomes more and more crowded and the removal or towing of objects is yet another area where the servicer might be used. This one has its own challenges of course because depending on the size of the debris and how it is tumbling in space, it may be more or less difficult to grab it and tow it. But once we start using this service in orbit, designs and technology will evolve and we will learn how to deal with anything.”
Nasa and MDA/Intelsat are not the only ones pursuing the concept of in-orbit servicing. The German Space Agency (DLR), for example, has an idea it is developing called DEOS.
The German DEOS demonstration would show how to capture spinning satellites
This is a demonstration mission that will also fly around 2015. It comprises a couple of satellites. One will act as the “servicer” and the other as the “client” spacecraft in need of capture and “repair”.
The purpose of the mission is really to understand how best to approach other objects and practise strategies for grabbing them. This is no trivial matter, Professor Felix Huber, the director of DLR space operations and astronaut training, told me:
”In the longer term, our goal is to be able to capture any satellite with a robotic arm. This might be a satellite that has lost control; it might be spinning or whatever. Usually, if you have a geostationary satellite, you have the apogee engine where you can grab into the nozzle. This is relatively easy. Whereas with DEOS, what we want to demonstrate is that we can grab a satellite anywhere with the robotic hand, even if it is rotating.
"But when you make the grab, what you have to do is un-stiffen the robotic arm - just like when you catch a ball, you kind of decelerate it slowly. Otherwise, if you have a hard touch, it will simply bounce off. Capturing a satellite means that once you have grabbed it, you need somehow to weaken your arm to slow it down gently. You will probably have to rotate the servicer to get rid of the spinning moment, and then you are safe. This will be the future if you have a broken satellite.”
With the space above our heads getting ever more crowded, the long-talked-about proposition of in-orbit servicing has to become a reality sooner or later. And not just servicing, but removing redundant satellites from the sky altogether.
It has been calculated that just removing a few key broken satellites would substantially reduce the potential for collision and a near-exponential growth in space debris over coming decades.
The robotic systems on the space station are key Canadian contributions to the ISS project
The robot's first operations will be very simple: a series of "games" on a board to demonstrate the performance seen on the ground can be replicated in the microgravity conditions experienced on the station.
JD Yamokoski is Robonaut Controls Lead from a company called Oceaneering Space Systems, which is working on the Nasa project. He told me:
"Initially, we will be doing system check-out - minor things to earn our stripes. At first, these will be some free-motion tasks to make sure we don't interact with any objects on station we shouldn't. Then we'll move on to the taskboard. It's got a variety of switches, valves, and knobs, soft materials - the types of things you'd find all over station. We're going to interact with that taskboard and prove we can work with the same things humans work with. And then, over time, we have a series of upgrades we'd like to fly - everything from a battery so we can go wireless to a new mobility platform so Robonaut can move around station as opposed to sitting in one spot.
"As to the future, R2 will do anything that helps the crew out - all the dull and dirty jobs. For instance, on Saturday mornings the crew spend their time wiping down handrails on station. There are huge numbers of these rails. So Robonaut could help with the cleaning. We have full 3D models of the inside of the station and there are a number of ways we could program Robonaut to move around."
So, stage by stage, R2 is set to move on to bigger and better things. Its human-like hands and arms should allow R2 to pick up and work with the same tools the station crew use; and with the correct locomotive attachments, the robot will eventually start clambering around the station just like the astronauts.
A double act: Humanoid robots will partner humans as we push out across the Solar System
It is easy enough to see where this is going, I think. Humanoid robots will increasingly work side-by-side with humans.
They will even stand in for astronauts during spacewalks or for those tasks in space thought too difficult or too dangerous for humans to accomplish.
And I wouldn't mind betting that at some point this century, they will actually lead their creators across the Solar System.
We often forget that Gagarin, Shepard and their ilk were preceded into Earth orbit by dogs and chimps.
In the far more demanding quest to reach the asteroids, the planets and their moons, robotic humanoid sentinels could be playing very significant roles.
We wouldn't risk sending humans first to the volcanic fields of Io or to the icy lakes of Titan. The robots would lead the advance.
Not always humanoid forms, of course. But just as on station, which is made for humans, if the Mars camp is designed to be occupied by people then we may want to send humanoid robots to set up that camp and test it before the astronauts' arrival. JD again:
"The amount of computing power we have in R2 now is a testament to how far processors have come. The robot has got 30-40 computers inside it. As computers continue to miniaturise and become more powerful in that smaller package, what we can do with the robot will increase.
"Just as an example. You may have seen the IBM computer Watson that recently competed on the US TV quiz show Jeopardy. It's a large computer and its feat is that it can understand natural language. There's no doubt that in 50 years from now, the computational power that machine can harness will be shrunk to the size we can fit in something like Robonaut."
There will be some, of course, who will question whether humans even need to follow if the robots reach this expected level of sophistication.
The machines' requirements are fewer in terms of the resources needed to sustain them - they don't want for air, food, water, and the very narrow range of warm temperatures demanded by humans.
And, ultimately, the machines are expendable. They don't have to be returned - a necessity in the case of humans which only adds to the complexity and cost of space missions.
But robots cannot simply replace humans in future exploration. It's something I've been discussing of late with the Esa astronaut Gerhard Thiele.
He makes a passionate case for the human element in space exploration. Our need to reach out into the unknown is innate, and he uses a nice Latin mnemonic for SPACE which embodies this compulsion: Sapientia, Populus, Audacia, Cultura, Exploratio:
"We often ask ourselves: why do humans explore? There is no clear-cut answer to this; there is no mathematical proof. Going into space may be a technical endeavour but ultimately going into space is a cultural thing. And you can see that because we do it all around the globe, whether we're Americans, Europeans, Japanese or Chinese - going into space to explore is something innate to the human being.
"You cannot ask a robot about feelings. Let me use this example. If I go to anywhere on this planet and sit on a beach and watch the beautiful sunset. With my physics education I can explain to others where the colours come from and what those colours tell you about the composition of the atmosphere. Some people may not understand this but if I talk only about the beauty of the sunset, then they understand this. You cannot do this with a robot, because a robot can only provide you with answers that someone has pre-programmed into them earlier somehow.
"I'm not saying we should not send robots; this is not my point. The human ability to sense emotions and take them into account in our actions is unique. Now, there are many areas where emotions are not wanted and could be even a distraction, where robots can do a much better job than we can do."
You have to wonder sometimes whether it is a rollercoaster that Europe plans on sending to Mars rather than a rover – such are the ups and downs and the sweeping curves on its ExoMars project.
ExoMars: Another evolution beckons
The rover was originally envisaged as a small-ish technology demonstration mission which could show that Europe was able to land on the Red Planet, trundle around to interesting places, and drill beneath the surface.
The science would concentrate on looking for signs of past or present life. But the concept for achieving all this has gone through iteration after iteration.
But almost immediately, the robot concept started to grow in size as the ambitions for what it could and should achieve also grew.
Soon, it was too big to fit on a Soyuz rocket and needed an Ariane or Proton launcher to send it on its way. And, as is often the case with complex space projects, its projected costs rose as well. I don’t think many of us were that surprised when its scheduled launch was pushed back, and pushed back, and back again.
The decision in 2009 of Nasa and Esa to merge their exploration programmes at the Red Planet offered a way out of this cul-de-sac.
For Europe, it meant the ExoMars rover could hitch a free ride on an American rocket in 2018.
The US wanted to send another rover of its own at that time, so as long as the two robots could fit into the same landing mechanism together everything ought to be fine. But recent events have upset this tidy arrangement.
The US has decided the cost structure envisaged for 2018 simply cannot be afforded in the current fiscal environment.
So Europe finds itself changing direction once again on ExoMars.
It is now proposed that the European robot and the American vehicle planned to accompany it in 2018 be combined into a single rover.
New drawing needed: The idea had been to send ExoMars and a US rover together on the same mission opportunity
This new robot is likely to be substantially bigger than either of the two previous concepts.
It is being described as a “European” vehicle. It should incorporate all the instruments planned for ExoMars, including the drill to go below the Martian surface. But it should carry some American instruments, and its manipulator arm will come from the US, as will a system to package – or cache – rocks.
Both Nasa and Esa have this idea that 2018 should be the start of “Mars sample return” – the objective of bringing rocks back to Earth for study in the lab. In 2018 they will begin this process by finding the right rocks and packing them up. A later mission will be despatched to try to retrieve them.
The key thing about this new-evolution rover is that it borrows heavily from the equipment designed for the upcoming American "MSL-Curiosity" rover. This is one way of keeping costs as low as possible.
Nasa and Esa want to re-use this architecture for 2018. Thefore, all of the landing gear – the entry capsule, the skycrane, and the tether system that does the actual lowering – will come from the US.
So there you go. All the design work in Europe that has been done since 2005 is going to have to go through yet another iteration.
Perhaps you’ve been to an event in the UK where you’ve seen a prototype of the ExoMars chassis – a six-wheeled trolley called either Bridget or Bruno. Well, put that to the back of your mind because engineers will soon have to produce another one to fit with new specifications.
Well in excess of 100 million euros has been spent on the ExoMars programme to date. Critics will raise their eyebrows at this, given the latest developments, but it would not be true to say all this money has somehow been wasted.
Much of the technology developed for ExoMars will find its way into the new vehicle. But you would be forgiven if you had a little voice in the back of your head saying, “are we nearly there yet?”.
2018 is really not that far away in the context of space mission preparation. Engineers on both sides of the Atlantic are now going to have to crack on and deliver a workable concept.
It will be interesting also to see how much of the development of this vehicle is led from the UK.
Britain has committed 165 million euros to ExoMars to secure primacy for itself on the rover.
Will we now see a big, six-wheeled robot being assembled in the UK? I certainly hope so.
We’re a little bit clearer now in Europe on what the really big space science mission will be at the end of this decade… just a little bit.
For the past four years, scientists and engineers have been developing three concepts that would cost European participating nations about a billion euros.
IXO will no longer be the giant first envisaged, but still a major leap forward on current capability
To recap, they are: (1) a 20m-long X-ray telescope called IXO that could see the very "edge" of a black hole; (2) a trio of satellites, collectively known as LISA, which might be able to detect the ripples in space-time left by the moment of creation itself; and (3) a spacecraft that would visit the Jupiter system and go into orbit around the moon Ganymede. This one is called EJSM/Laplace.
We were expecting the European Space Agency to give us a good indication this year of which mission might be the favoured one, with the launch pencilled in for 2020 or very soon after.
Four years’ work and they’ve hit a big buffer. They cannot be done as originally envisaged.
The reason is the Americans. In recent months, we’ve seen two highly influential reports come out of the States which have attempted to summarise and prioritise current US thinking on space science.
These reports – they’re called Decadal Surveys, for the obvious reason that they’re done once a decade – have put a mighty spanner in the European works.
Europe had hoped to progress with one of its Big Three as a partnership with America.
But the Decadal Surveys do not consider any of these concepts to align with the top-most US priorities in planetary science and astrophysics; and it’s quite clear from the budget situation facing the American space agency right now that there simply isn’t the money on the other side of the Atlantic to participate in them anyway – not at the level that was originally envisaged. Projects like the much-delayed James Webb Space Telescope have consumed huge funds.
So what is going to happen?
The IXO, LISA and Laplace teams have been told to go away and think how they could complete their missions as largely European-only ventures. They have just under a year to do this.
When they come back, their concepts will be smaller and they’ll probably have new names, too.
De-scoping the concepts and making them work for a billion euros may be easier said than done.
For Laplace, it looks more straightforward. In technology terms, we already know very well how to send a planetary probe to the outer planets. But Laplace was sold on the basis that it would deliver complementary science to an American orbiter at another Jupiter moon, Europa. If its “cousin” isn’t going…?
For a mission like LISA, a de-scoping is going to involve some head-scratching.
It planned to fly three satellites five million km apart in an equilateral triangle formation. Laser beams travelling between the spacecraft would measure their separation very precisely.
The idea was that gravitational waves generated by exploding stars and merging black holes would wash over these beams and disturb them in a very characteristic way.
It’s a new kind of astronomy that would allow you to study far-off phenomena without looking through a telescope.
With perhaps just a billion euros to play with, the original architecture may not be achievable. One idea is to still fly three satellites, but use only two laser “arms” to detect gravitational waves.
Professor Bernie Schutz from the Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics, in Potsdam, told me:
"Within the European LISA community, we're kicking around lots of options. In fact, there are so many ideas I think it's pretty clear we will come up with some kind of design. We are asking ourselves key questions: what science can we keep, what will we lose, and are there some new things we could do? I say that because if we shorten the arms, for example, the frequency range changes, and that might open up new possibilities, new observational targets. We're quite certain we can come up with a design that will still make a persuasive scientific case. But it's really too early to say anything for certain."
With a descoped architecture necessarily comes a reduction in sensitivity and capability. Does LISA remain as compelling a venture as it once did?
This is the question that will face all three of the down-sized concepts when they are presented anew in 2012.
Professor Andy Fabian from Cambridge University, UK, is working on the IXO concept. He won’t now get the super-scope first envisaged but says the revised X-ray observatory will still be a marvel. He told me:
”We think we can come up with a mission which is a very significant advance on what we’ve got already. It’s like the next generation of optical telescopes. Initially the European Southern Observatory’s next Extremely Large Telescope was going to be a 100m telescope, and then they went to 42m and now it may be just 30m. We’ll be doing the same. We’ll be smaller but we’ll still be bigger than anything that has gone before. There are now lighter ways to make the mirror; there are higher spectral resolution spectrometers we can use, and also we will try to make this thing more restricted in its instrumentation. The original IXO concept had quite a range of instruments; we’ll probably now only have one or two. We’ll lose some possibilities, but in terms of the core observations – making spectra and images – I think we are going to have an enormous boost compared to what we can do at the moment. I’m quite bullish.”
You can look at the positives to come out of this. It is an opportunity for Europe to stand tall and take a clear lead in certain areas of space science.
What Europe will hope, however, is that at least one of the trio will appear so attractive to the Americans that they will still want to come onboard.
This is not going to be at the levels previously considered, but it could reach $100m or more. Any additional money will mean more capability. There will of course be many US scientists who are deeply disappointed that America can no longer participate in these missions as they had planned; and, as I understand it, efforts are being made to keep them involved for the time being as "observers".
The big cosmic elephant in this room is what Europe and the US decide to do at Mars, but I’ll leave that for my next posting.
Running lasers along three arms of the triangle may no longer be possible
It examines how the emerging economies, led by China and followed by others such as Brazil and India, are challenging the "old order".
The pre-eminent scientific positions of the US, Western Europe and Japan are now being eroded on every front - in the number of scientific papers published, in citations made, and in patent applications. In terms of pure investment, the emerging economies are also pumping increasing funds into their labs and their science-based industries.
This blog is concerned with space, of course, and all of the above applies very much to this particular field of endeavour. But, as I say, where there is a challenge so there is an opportunity.
John Zarnecki (third from right) inspects a prototype Chinese Moon rover in 2007
He's being given a lab, people and money to work on space instrumentation. There's a good chance the products of this work will end up on China's Chang'e programme, which is exploring the Moon.
So far, the Chinese have put two spacecraft in orbit around the lunar body. The future missions Chang'e 3, 4 and 5 will very likely land, rove and finally return rock samples to Earth.
This is not one of those classic "brain drain" stories; rather it's about chasing possibilities. John will still anchor himself in the UK and at the OU. He believes British and Chinese space interests can build a strong new partnership:
"Some people have put their heads in the sand about this, but China is coming. This is the last big project in my career, but what an opportunity to work with the Chinese on developing an instrument or package and sending it to the Moon or Mars!
Huygens made the most distant landing in the Solar System. John Zarnecki's instrument package probed Titan's surface
"They've offered me a visiting professorship at Beihang University, which is a new name for the Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics. They're strong on technology and very well connected with the Chinese space agency. We've had contacts with them for several years, but I've come to the conclusion that to make real progress then even more personal contact is needed; and so when this professorship came up, it was too good an opportunity to miss.
"The OU is encouraging me because, like a lot of UK universities, they recognise that China is the coming force and it's important to engage at all levels, from teaching to research. And whereas in the UK we are under tremendous pressure over resources, in China they're offering me a lab and giving me people.
"This year, I will be out there for about three months and then we'll see how it goes. I'm not signed up to a particular space mission, but I hope by being there I will be able to get on some great missions like Chang'e 3, 4 and 5. Here, we're talking about a lunar lander, a lunar rover and lunar sample return over the next three missions.
"And the really exciting thing is that when I started going there a few years ago, Mars was just a dream; it would feature in one slide at the end of a presentation from some of their senior people. Now, we get whole presentations on very detailed technical studies. I think the Chang'e 1and 2 missions - the success of them, technically - have given the Chinese huge confidence that they really can do stuff.
"Now, China is very good on the technical side of things, but what they don't have is the 40 years' experience in space science that we have in the UK and Europe. That's what we can bring to them. And, you know, I see this as a win-win: I see this as the OU opening a lab in China, and I want to see Chinese students coming to Britain and British students going to China.
"Many of these kids will be the scientific leaders of tomorrow and if I can help bring them through, that will be fantastic."
The UK has done fantastically well in recent years with its space science partnerships with the US. Consider the recent Nasa missions launched to study the Sun - the Stereo spacecraft and the Solar Dynamics Observatory.
Britain provided a modest amount of scientific instrumentation and components, and in return got prime access to some cutting-edge data on our star.
It's the sort of access British researchers could never have got any other way because the UK simply does not have the budget to launch these kinds of missions on its own.
It looks increasingly likely that these opportunities will also now present themselves in China and India. Who'll grab opportunities?
The Royal Society report investigates the emergence of China and others as big scientific players
The Chancellor George Osborne wanted to support this vibrant performer, so he unveiled a package of regulatory reform and gave it a small sum of money to start a national Space Technology Programme (UKSTP).
This programme will be primed with £10m from the Treasury and £10m from private industry.
It will fund R&D projects to make sure British labs and companies keep coming up with innovative products and services that can win exports.
All in the space industry applauded. “We welcome the fact that the government recognises the importance of space to growth”, was the common message I was hearing yesterday.
But here’s the thing. As George Osborne was making his Budget announcements in the House of Commons, across the Channel in France the government there was also unveiling a package of support for its space sector.
I’m going to write that again so no-one thinks I’ve added an extra nought by mistake. Yes, France’s space sector got an uplift in its government support on Wednesday of 500 million euros (£440m).
It is part of Le Grand Emprunt (“The Big Loan”), a colossal bond-financed investment in a variety of fields, but principally in those related to research and education.
The money on offer to space is so large the French haven’t decided yet where to spend it all.
The largest chunk – 82.5 million euros initially, to be followed by a further 167 million - is going on the project to develop the successor to the Ariane 5 rocket.
This will be a multi-billion-euro endeavour that will eventually require the input of other European nations, but the French intend to lead it.
There are tens of millions of euros also for a new spacecraft to map ocean surface height, for the development of a new class of small satellite platforms, and for new technologies to put on telecommunications spacecraft of the type that route our calls, relay our TV programmes and stream the net.
At this point, I’m reminded of Formula One motor racing, that most hi-tech of sports.
I, like many I’m sure, still miss the BBC’s legendry commentator Murray Walker. Talking about investment and development in F1, Murray used to say: “To stand still in this business is to go backwards.” And this is the problem now faced by the British government.
It’s in a race, also, and the country in the next garage is currently out-investing it on a large scale. And that’s true in a number of garages down the pit lane. OK, metaphor over, but this is the challenge.
The government says the state of the nation’s finances simply cannot allow the type of spending that’s going on in France. So, how does the UK respond?
Richard Peckham is the chairman of UK Space, the umbrella group representing British space companies. He couldn’t avoid the obvious comparison between events in London and Paris on Wednesday either, but he remains very positive about the future. He told me:
“All the things that were mentioned in the Budget were the things we had requested in our Innovation and Growth Strategy that we published last year. Yes, even the £10m of new money gives a good message, given the austerity times and how difficult it is to get any money out of Treasury.
"In the light of announcements from Paris, this might all seem rather small; but I do see this as a road. We asked for a National Technology Programme. We want it to grow to something like a £100m budget, co-funded with industry, and this is the start. I am positive.
"Obviously, we have a long way to go before we get the same view of space as France, Germany and Italy. And in truth, we will always be a bit different because we will always be focussed more on the commercial aspects, on being smarter with our money, whereas they will always be more public-sector-focussed, retaining the large national programmes they have in the past.
"We’re not going to outspend them, not in my lifetime; but we can be innovative and outsmart them. We can bring out the entrepreneur. Look at Virgin Galactic, Surrey Satellite Technology Limited and Avanti Communications. These all came out of brilliant ideas.”
I've been troubled of late by the scale of things, by the vastness of space.
It's been brought into focus by two things, I think. The first is the Voyager 1 probe - the most distant man-made object from Earth.
I've written a couple of articles recently about this veteran explorer. Launched in 1977 on a grand tour of the outer planets, it's now making a push to leave the Solar System. It's getting very close to crossing into interstellar space. Scientists know this from the way particles thrown off our star are behaving in the vicinity of the probe.
Electric propulsion could see us make more frequent, faster trips to the outer planets
Whereas this "solar wind" has always streamed past Voyager, the particles have now slowed and are moving sideways from it. In other words, Voyager has reached the point where the Sun's domain of influence is pressed right up against that of other stars.
And yet, as extraordinary as Voyager is, its efforts to reach out across space still seem quite puny. In 33 years, it has travelled 17.4 billion kilometres. That sounds a lot - and it is. But it's a tiny fraction (1/2,300) of the distance to the nearest star - Proxima Centauri.
And here's the point that's been troubling me: if we have difficulty in reaching out to a distance equivalent to the nearest star (4.2 light-years), can we seriously ever think of getting to some of these far-flung planets?
For sure, the next generation of giant telescopes will be able to probe their atmospheres and tell us what sort of worlds they are. But what if we discover that a number of them betray tantalising evidence of biology? What then?
All this brings me to this month's edition of the British Interplanetary Society's Spaceflight magazine. The BIS has always harboured future-thinkers (Sir Arthur C Clarke among the greatest) and the magazine has often acted as their forum for discussion.
The current edition of Spaceflight runs an article from an international team of scientists and engineers - with members in the UK, the US, Germany, Australia and Hungary - who have applied themselves to just this issue.
Project Icarus, as they call their venture, have tried to envisage the ships we could be building in the decades and centuries ahead that might just get us a decent distance across space in a time which means something on a human scale.
New propulsion technologies are key, of course. The feeble chemical rocketry that sent Voyager on its way in 1977 will not do. Most favoured are the emerging electric propulsion systems.
These rely on the motion of highly excited gases, or plasmas, moulded by magnetic fields to provide thrust. Although they don't give the initial big kick you get from chemical combustion, their supreme efficiency means they can go on thrusting for extended periods, achieving far more acceleration per kilogram of fuel consumed.
"World" ships that crossed space to visit other star systems would still take centuries and would be colossal in scale
Labelled a "game changer" by Nasa, this technology is likely to be fitted to the International Space Station in the next few years to help boost its orbit, which has a tendency to decay over time as the platform skirts the top of the atmosphere.
Project Icarus envisages bigger systems that could push deep into interstellar space in just a few decades. Nuclear fusion reactors that drive gigawatt-class vessels may eventually get robots and even humans to other star systems.
Kelvin Long, Project Icarus team-member and co-author of this month's Spaceflight magazine article, said:
"To include a crew on a mission that will take decades to centuries presents many engineering and environmental control issues. For human transport the only credible way is a generation ship or a World Ship, carrying tens to hundreds of people who will arrive at the destination and attempt to colonise one of the planets. Before they go, much about the planet will already be known, from long distance exoplanet discoveries.
"In terms of sending an unmanned probe, the main motivation for this is science return. Long range astronomical observations will improve over time with higher fidelity measurements, but it is difficult to compete with having an actual spacecraft in the system able to study any stars or planets close up, perhaps deploying planetary probes and landers - ultimately looking for signs of life. Along the way, the probe can also conduct valuable science such as improving astronomical parallax measurements or looking for gravity waves. The exploration of the cosmos is the main reason for launching a probe like Icarus.
"Ultimately, we would like to find life in the Universe and ideally intelligent life other than our own. Conducting theoretical studies like... Project Icarus is the only way we can push forward to the stage where we can eventually build something like it, and then perhaps someday go see for ourselves."
He told me that space brings great benefits to his country:
"Our own space programme is not an ego trip; it is not meant for lunar missions. It is meant to solve problems at home; problems of agriculture; problems of water resources development; problems of environment, and so on and so forth."
One is NigeriaSat-2, a follow-on to the Earth imager NigeriaSat-1 launched in 2003, and the other is NigeriaSat-X.
Nigerian engineers have built a satellite with the help of British engineers
The first is a top-notch small satellite produced by engineers at Surrey Satellite Technology Limited (SSTL) in Guildford, UK, for Nigeria. An extremely powerful platform, NigeriaSat-2 will be able to resolve details down to about 2.5m across.
When it gets into orbit, it will actually give Nigeria an imaging spacecraft more capable than any such asset owned by the British government (the UK calls up "Uncle Sam" when it needs very high-resolution images).
NigeriaSat-X is not quite in the same class (22m resolution) but what's most interesting about this spacecraft is that it has been built by Nigerian engineers under the direction of their SSTL counterparts.
They will be able to go home and make future spacecraft themselves.
It's a model followed by Turkey. They received their education at SSTL as well, and when the Dnepr flies it will also carry RASAT to orbit.
This is the first remote sensing satellite (7.5m resolution) to have been developed and manufactured in Turkey by Turkish engineers.
Dr Seidu Mohammed:
"NigeriaSat-2, in our opinion, when launched, will create a data revolution, not only in Nigeria but in the whole of Africa. In 2009, Nigeria, along with Algeria, South Africa and Kenya, signed a major memorandum that enables Africa to work with itself - which is the Africa Resource Management Constellation. NigeriaSat-2 will be the first satellite in that fleet. It will create a number of data that enables Africa to achieve the so-called Millennium Development Goals and other African initiatives.
"So, to a large extent we are looking to that with excitement. Being a higher resolution image, it will provide the ability to do cadastral mapping (to describe the land and its ownership) in Nigeria. This in our opinion will improve the revenue base of most states by more than 1,000%, and this will go a long way in supporting governance, because we believe governance is about providing welfare in education, health and some other areas."
Nigeria has something like 40 people around the world right now doing PhDs in some aspect of space engineering. There are many completing MSc studies, too. It's all knowledge that they will take home.
Nigeria has grander plans, of course. A key goal in the coming years is to develop a radar satellite. The climate experienced in the southern part of the country means it gets a lot of cloud cover, and the only way you can see through cloud is with radar.
Dr Mohammed says radar would help Nigeria to patrol better its mineral and fisheries wealth.
At the moment, there is a lot of oil theft in Nigeria - a practice known as "bunkering". And there are many foreign vessels that come into Nigerian waters to fish illegally. It all amounts to billions in losses to the national economy.
Keep an eye out for the Dnepr launch in the months ahead. The two Nigerian satellites will both go into the Disaster Monitoring Constellation (DMC), the UK-managed network of remote sensing spacecraft that provide rapid imaging in times of crisis.
NigeriaSat-1 was one of the first satellites tasked with imaging the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. NigeriaSat-2 and NigeriaSat-X will also engage in disaster zone mapping
It was a big moment in every sense. When the Ariane 5 shook and lifted skyward, it marked not only the heaviest payload carried into orbit to date by Europe's premier rocket but the 200th mission of the launcher series initiated back in 1979.
Point perfect: Ariane delivered Johannes Kepler precisely into the 260km-high orbit demanded
I've discussed the capabilities of the ATV on a number of occasions, especially its very smart rendezvous and docking technology that allows it to find its own way to a destination and attach itself without any human intervention.
The current ship is the second such vehicle (the first, "Jules Verne", went to the launch pad 600kg lighter than Kepler). Three more ATVs are in various stages of construction.
The freighters are a kind of subscription that Europe has to pay to be a member of the International Space Station "club". Instead of handing over cash to the Americans to get access to the orbiting laboratory for its astronauts, Europe has instead bartered a logistics role for itself.
So long as ATVs keep turning up at the station with several tonnes of food, water, air, fuel and equipment, European astronauts can claim a place on the platform for six months out of every 24.
The ATV production line requires a decision now on any future orders
The supplies that will fly on the next three ATVs should see Europe meet its end of the bargain through to about 2016. But as we know, the station now looks as though it will fly until at least 2020, and perhaps beyond.
So how should Europe continue to pay its subscription?
It's a very timely question right now because European industry has told Esa that if the production line for the freighters is to be kept open and economical then fresh orders must be placed very soon.
For a long time, the expectation was that Esa would request simply an ATV-6 and ATV-7, with little significant change in the basic design concept.
Then the idea was floated of having a return capability added to at least one of these vehicles.
At the moment, the ATVs are destroyed at the end of their mission by being commanded to burn up in the Earth's atmosphere with all the refuse off-loaded from the space station.
Feasibility work has been done to assess the implications of adding a re-entry capsule, one that could be used in the first instance to bring cargo safely down to Earth and then maybe, sometime in the future, even astronauts.
But this option, known as the Advance Re-Entry Vehicle, does not appear to have the momentum it once had.
Adding a return capsule to an ATV may not be the best option in a common transportation plan
Driving the thought process now is the need for a global transportation policy, the idea that the different partners in the space station club bring capabilities that enhance the overall effectiveness of their endeavours in orbit.
In other words, on space transportation they should all play as a team. And with a number of return capsules already in development in the US (such as Dragon, Boeing CST-100, etc), does Europe really need to be duplicating this function?
Should it instead try something different, something new? Shouldn't the next series of ATVs look to take that clever automatic rendezvous and docking technology into new roles?
Simonetta Di Pippo is the director of human spaceflight at Esa. She told me that Esa was looking at re-defining the ships:
"The idea is to procure up to ATV-5 and then to develop a new system. We want something new in order also to keep the expertise in our industry.
"We're discussing that in the context of the extension of ISS up to 2020 and beyond with our member states. It would be something that is a derivative of the ATV, with the requirements to be discussed with the station partners. Because whatever we develop, it has to be done on the basis of a common understanding of what is needed for the future.
"With the new commercial systems coming out, we need to revisit the overall picture; and this has to be done together with the partners. In the past, we've had co-ordination but not a common plan. Now we want to develop a common plan that allows us to co-operate while at the same time being autonomous in certain technologies.
"[The future vehicle] needs certain requirements. The space station needs to be de-orbited at a certain point; we need probably also on the longer term to be able to send some pressurised modules to the station, because we do believe that more space will be needed in the years to come; and it would need to have some features like a service module that could act as a tug.
"In June, we should have the requirements on the table, jointly agreed with Nasa and the other partners."
So, some new roles for the European space freighter are being defined and we'll find out what they are very shortly.
The issue of de-orbiting the space station is an interesting one. Currently, we've no clear idea when that might happen; it could be quite late in the 2020s if the modules receive the necessary certification or/and are updated.
But what is clear is that of all the vehicles out there at the moment, only the ATV has the propulsive might to bring the 400-tonne structure down into the atmosphere and a controlled burn-up.
The new vehicle would incorporate a shuttle-derived, five-segment, solid-fuelled booster provided by ATK as the first stage, with an Ariane 5 cryogenic-core-stage and Vulcain-2 engine from Astrium making up the second stage (Vulcains are produced by French firm Snecma).
ATK is emphasising proven flight heritage, inherent safety, and speed of development
It's a meaty combination that could put 20 tonnes in low-Earth orbit. The companies say Liberty could launch any of the commercial crew capsules now in development.
ATK, as the lead in the partnership, has entered the Liberty proposal into the second round of Nasa's Commercial Crew Development Program (CCDev), hoping to secure some funding assistance. We'll find out in the coming weeks just how successful that's been.
Nasa is likely to be investing hundreds of millions of dollars in various concepts over the coming years in a bid to seed operators that can then sell crew launch services back to the agency and anyone else who might want to go into orbit.
Companies like Boeing are developing new capsules which could launch on Liberty
The "anyone else" could be other government bodies like the European, Japanese and Canadian space agencies, which do not currently possess indigenous human launch capabilities, or privateers looking to establish new space enterprises.
Ares and Liberty are both stick thin; and of course ATK would have provided the Ares first stage as well.
ATK is hoping this will be part of the appeal of the Liberty concept - the new vehicle would be seen as taking advantage of all the investment that US taxpayers put into Ares before its cancellation. That investment included the test firing of two giant five-segment boosters on ATK's range in its home state of Utah. In that sense, Liberty can be said to be off and running already.
Kent Rominger is a former Nasa Chief of the Astronaut Corps who now works for ATK. Speaking to the BBC on Tuesday, he was keen to emphasise the safety aspects of the Liberty design:
"In my mind one of the most important attributes is providing a launcher that is very, very safe, and reliable. Our Liberty rocket is inherently reliable. You do that by starting with a system that is as simple as can be.
You minimise the number of areas where we've learnt in the past that failures can result in a catastrophe. So an as example, we have only two stages, meaning we have just one staging event. Each stage has only one engine - so there's only one place that can fail there.
In addition to that, we're leveraging all the experience that both companies have - and the hardware that has been proven."
For ATK's employees also, the announcement of the Liberty project must be most welcome. The company has indicated it would have to slim down given that its shuttle boosters are no longer required beyond this year.
For European commentators like myself, the Astrium involvement is most interesting. I was in the company's Les Mureaux facility near Paris just last month, walking around the Ariane 5 core stages as they were joined to their Vulcain engines just prior to shipment to the Kourou spaceport in French Guiana.
The Ariane 5 is "a vehicle that has human spaceflight in its genes". That's how Silvio Sandrone, Astrium's vice-president of launcher sales and business development, described the rocket to me today.
It was conceived with the intention of launching Europe's Hermes crew ship, before that project - like the US Ares rocket - was cancelled on the grounds of cost.
It's as if Ariane 5 has been waiting, though, for those genetics to be re-discovered. Most of us thought that if it happened it would come through European governments deciding to upgrade Esa's robotic freighter, ATV, into a crew ship and launching it off the top of an Ariane 5.
That idea still looks a long, long way away, especially in the current economic climate across Europe.
Taking the Ariane 5 core stage and sticking it atop a shuttle solid-rocket-booster is not entirely left-field but I doubt it would be many people's first suggestion.
The idea came from ATK, apparently, which first approached Arianespace, the company that sells Ariane launch services. Arianespace then spoke to Astrium, which leads the European Ariane manufacturing consortium. They love the idea.
The core stage will necessarily need some modifications. For a start, the Vulcain engine will have to be made to ignite in a vacuum - something it doesn't have to do currently. But the big thought running through my head today is not technical but philosophical.
Europeans often bemoan reliance on US systems and talk about developing an independent crew launch capability. But isn't this a rather outmoded idea? Surely, the direction in which "new space" is taking us is one where big multi-national concerns dominate, buying and selling services in ways that cut across borders and traditional government lines and ties.
This is true of the wider economy. Oil, pharmaceuticals, agribusiness, media - the biggest companies operate globally. They may have a HQ in a particular country but their outlook is trans-national. Silvio Sandrone told me:
"It's a good question. From Europe's point of view, you want to be independent to do in space the things you really want to do.
One can think of navigation, Earth observation - those kinds of things. These we would want to do on our own, and for me it is clear that these types of applications are necessarily linked to European sovereignty and have to have their own launcher.
It's up to the politicians to decide if human spaceflight is something we want to do on our own or in some sort of international cooperation. Only European governments can tell us what they want.
But maybe Liberty will be an intermediate step. If there were an American launcher with significant European industrial participation, this might spur Europe to think again and to think more proactively about affording itself a crew capability, at least with a capsule first."
More than 300 of Europe's leading space scientists gathered in Paris this week to discuss how to spend more than a billion euros. The options? Well, try to choose between these three:
IXO would be compressed into a smaller shape to fit in its launch rocket
(1) a 20m-long telescope called IXO that could see the very "edge" of a black hole; or (2) a trio of satellites collectively known as LISA which might be able to detect the ripples in space-time left by the moment of creation itself; or (3) a pair of spacecraft that would visit two of the most promising locations for life beyond Earth in our Solar System. This is called EJSM/Laplace.
The European Space Agency is working through the process of selecting a large mission to do something extraordinary, with the idea of launching the venture in 2020 or soon after. The start of the next decade might seem a long way away, but in the business of space this type of extended planning is very common.
The mission concepts being considered in this instance stretch what we know scientifically and challenge what we think we're capable of achieving technologically. And the reality is that in the case of two of the three missions I'll discuss on this page, several million euros will be spent just to say "no, we're not going to do that this time".
This week's meeting was a beauty pageant, if you like. It was a chance for the proponents of each mission concept to sell their idea to the wider community, and, very importantly, to the committee members in the audience who will make the final decision.
So what exactly is on offer?
The meeting was held in the grand surroundings of the Institut Oceanographique in Paris
IXO [7MB PDF]: The International X-ray Observatory would be another of the grand telescopes, in the mould of Hubble, Herschel and James Webb. Like James Webb, it would be so big that it would need to be compressed, accordion-like, to fit inside its Atlas 5 launch rocket.
Only when it got into orbit could this 6.5 tonne beast extend to full length. Carrying advanced optics, it would deliver sensitivity and resolution 10 to a 100 times better than the current state-of-the art machines - Nasa's Chandra telescope and Esa's XMM. What could it do? Well, X-rays are a signal from the energetic Universe - from places where matter is being accelerated to great speeds, heated, or even torn apart.
To a science journalist one might even say it's a signal from the "exciting Universe" because the sources of X-rays are often those staples of gripping astronomy stories - black holes. Indeed, IXO would allow us to probe these objects in ways the current generations of astronomers could only dream of.
IXO would hunt for the first supermassive black holes to form in the Universe, and learn how they evolved through cosmic time. It would also allow us to peer right at the event horizons of black holes, locations where some really weird relativistic effects are predicted to occur as matter is pulled "inside". Paul Nandra, from the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Garching, is an IXO champion. He told me:
"We think we've already seen some of these effects with the current generation of telescopes; evidence that time slows down close to a black hole. That causes the light to shift. But even weirder things happen when you get close to a black hole: you get effects that light is bent so that you can almost see the back of your head. That sort of thing can become observable if you've got enough sensitivity like you'll have with IXO. So, we want to see these effects; we've got hints of them already. But now we know we are close to a breakthrough and that if we get this increase in sensitivity from IXO, we can see these effects predicted by Einstein's general relativity."
The LISA satellites would fire lasers across five million km of space
LISA [12MB PDF]: The Laser Interferometer Space Antenna has been studied as a mission concept in some form for at least 18 years. Its purpose would be to detect gravitational waves. The movement of truly massive bodies, such as merging black holes, are expected to disturb the space-time around them, sending this energy radiating outwards. It's a very small signal, however, and to identify it requires extraordinary sensitivity.
LISA would fly three satellites five million km apart in an equilateral triangle formation. Laser beams travelling between the spacecraft would measure distances between free-floating gold blocks. The trick to detecting a wave washing over the observatory would be to see the laser beams deviate in a very characteristic way.
Measuring that, though, means observing changes as small as about 10 picometers, or 10 million millionths of a metre, a length smaller than the diameter of the smallest atom. Astonishing. But if this is possible - and everyone seems to think it is - it will turn astronomy on its head because it means we will be able to probe the Universe in ways that do not depend on detecting light. Professor Bernie Schutz from the Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics in Potsdam told me:
"Light is a wonderful medium for exploring the Universe and our own neighbourhoods, but the problem with light is that it's pretty easy to block it; and when you're talking about getting light from very distant regions of the Universe, there are too many things in the way. The light gets scattered or absorbed. Gravitational waves don't do that; they go through absolutely everything. Ordinary gravity does; you can't screen gravity out. You know that you weigh as much when you're standing inside a building as when you're standing outside. You can always block radio waves and the transmission to your phone - that's electromagnetic waves, that's light. But you can't do that with gravity. So if we can detect gravitational waves then we can observe things that we can't reach any other way."
Like IXO, LISA will open up black holes to study in ways that are simply not possible currently, but what really fascinates me is what it could do for the study of the really early Universe.
There should be a background of gravitational waves rippling across the Universe from the Big Bang. LISA just might have the sensitivity to pick this up, or certainly some of the other key events predicted to have occurred in the first fractions of a second after the cosmos came into being.
Europe would concentrate on Ganymede, putting a spacecraft in orbit around the moon
EJSM/Laplace [9MB PDF]: This is a two-spacecraft mission that would go out to Jupiter, to study the planet and its Galilean moons. Particular emphasis would be paid to Europa and to Ganymede. I'll talk to the importance of international collaboration in just a moment, but this endeavour would see the Americans concentrate on Europa with one spacecraft and the Europeans concentrate on Ganymede with the other.
Each satellite would conduct a stream of independent science in the Jupiter system. BUT, the two spacecraft would also work in tandem, gathering data together from different standpoints around the gas giant that would give scientists a totally new perspective on the Solar System's biggest planet.
Jupiter's significance has grown in recent years as we've discovered more and more planets around distant stars. Jupiter is an archetype, a model, for those far-flung systems, not least because it is on the rocky and icy moons of giants planets that life may exist. And this is the real draw of going to Europa and Ganymede. These two bodies probably harbour deep sub-surface layers of liquid water, and, as such, are considered prime locations for biology to perhaps take hold. Professor Michele Dougherty from Imperial College London said:
"You need essential elements; you need water; you need stability over time; and you need energy as well. What we want to do is to try to understand the details of those four different areas [at these moons]. And you can't do that if you have flybys. Nasa's Galileo spacecraft spent years in the vicinity of Jupiter but it didn't spend more than three or four hours on a flyby of each of the moons. To separate out all of the different effects, you need to spend time in orbit. You need to be able to see the same piece of surface time and time again, to see how it might change."
IXO, LISA and EJSM/Laplace would cost well in excess of a billion euros to implement. The European Space Agency says it can spend no more than 700m euros on any one venture.
That's realistic if the member states of the agency pick up the costs of building instruments (which they would normally do) and Nasa (and Japan in the case of IXO) also joins the party. And here's the tricky part. While Esa works through its selection process, the US is also working through a separate selection process, too.
The priorities of the two agencies - or at least their scientific communities - have to align; so too do the timelines for making decisions.
It's rather like organising a multi-billion euro wedding and trying to get the bride and groom to the church on the same day to say "I do". But watch out in June because we should at least get some indication then from the Science Programme Committee of Esa on how it views the big choices above.
The GW study estimated the combined contribution of these sectors to US GDP to be $1,342bn, or about 9.5% of GDP in 2009. This was deemed to be a conservative assessment.
In the 27-member EU, these same sectors account for over 10 % of GDP (i.e. some €1,236bn). But a further assessment was then undertaken to try to establish the actual share of these sectors' contributions to GDP that is being impacted by sat-nav. This assessment returned the following observations:
Delivery services: Reliance was deemed to be 100%. The rationale was that fleet management and parcel tracking by sat-nav is used by all freight forwarders and couriers.
Utilities: Exposure was estimated to be 60%. The rationale here was that transmission and distribution networks such as electricity grids rely on sat-nav timing for synchronization.
Banking & Financial: The impact was estimated to be 35%. As I suspected last Friday, this relates to all those Big Money transactions that are stamped with GPS time.
Agriculture: The impact was considered to be 10%. This relates to so called "precision agriculture" whereby field management (spraying, etc) on the biggest farms across the EU is done with the assistance of GPS in the tractor or combine cabin.
Communications: The exposure was estimated to be 40%. The rationale here is that mobile phone turnover accounts for 40% of telecom turnover in the EU. Something like 300 million smartphones were shipped globally last year, with Europe one of the key markets. Does any modern smartphone not contain a GPS chip? It's hard to imagine a handset manufacturer omitting such a feature.
So, when this assessment was done, the conclusion it drew was that the sat-nav-sensitive contribution of these industries to EU-27 GDP was potentially 6-7%, or about €800bn.
In some countries within the EU-27, this figure will no doubt be more; in others, less. For example, consider the importance of the financial sector to the UK. How many of those big transactions in the City of London go through a server in the "back office" that uses GPS time.
To re-state - the point here is not really the accuracy of these estimations because, as I said, even if they off by a substantial margin, they remain huge. Rather, the point is to underscore the importance of global navigation satellite systems (GNSS) to the modern economy.
This is the background against which Galileo has to be considered, and what member states have to keep in mind when they decide whether or not to fund the extra 1.9bn euros needed to complete Galileo's roll-out by the decade's end.
The European Commission uses a very interesting statistic in support of its proposed satellite navigation system, Galileo.
It appeared with the "mid-term review [200KB]" of the project and the assessment of the future cost to complete the network's infrastructure - a further 1.9bn euros on top of the already committed 3.4bn. The stat resulted in some discussion in the office. Here it is:
"It is estimated that currently 6-7% of GDP of developed countries, €800bn in Europe, depends on satellite navigation."
If correct, it's an astonishing figure. We started thinking of some high-value activities that might account for it, such as the big dealings on the money markets which can be stamped with GPS time; or what about the total value of goods on all container ships that use GPS as a navigation tool?
Galileo could be fully operational by the end of the decade, the mid-term review said
I asked the Commission to source and justify the figure. So far it hasn't got back to me. But even if the stat were wide of the mark by an order of magnitude, it would still be huge. It shouldn't really surprise us.
GPS has been an extraordinary driver of wealth [2MB PDF]. As I always say, consider just the co-founders of Garmin, manufacturers of personal navigation devices. Gary Burrell and Min Kao are both billionaires listed on the Forbes Top 400 list of the richest people in the US. And they made their fortunes before the era of modern smartphones that are all now shipped with a sat-nav chip.
The European Commission made clear in its Galileo mid-term review what most people had realised a long time ago - namely that Galileo of itself will generate very little income.
Revenues back to the system from its very accurate, highly restricted services, which will be provided to a relatively small group of customers (predominantly government agencies), will generate sums that might run into the tens of millions of euros annually - at best (Page 20 of the review).
As with GPS, the real value is to be found downstream in the wider economic activity that will ride off the back of Galileo's sat-nav signals, or to be more precise the enhanced capability that will come from having Galileo and GPS working in tandem and pushing each other forward.
In that sense, Galileo should be viewed like all those roads across Europe that have been built with money from Brussels. The benefit is not in the roads per se but in the economic vibrancy they've opened up in locations that previously had poor transportation links. The value of this return dwarfs the initial investment in layers of asphalt.
This week I met with Rosemary McClenaghan. She's a former social worker who now runs a taxi and chauffeur business on the outskirts of Belfast.
She had a very simple but brilliant idea. Wouldn't it be great if you could have an app on your phone that allowed you to call a taxi, see where the nearest vehicle was to you, follow its progress to your location, and be comfortable about getting into that cab because all the information about it (driver's name, vehicle make and model, license registration, etc) had already been sent to your phone?
Rosemary just had the vision. She's not a technologist, so she went to someone who is to help her turn that vision into reality.
The result is an iPhone app now being trialled in Belfast called TaxiZapp. Rosemary told me:
"The beauty of it is that it shows when the driver tells you he's on the way, you can actually see the driver on the map driving towards you. So, it's pinging his location all the time like sat-nav.
"They can't lie to you and say 'I'll be 10 minutes' because you can see where they are; and they can see where you are, too. They get your information as well. So if they have any difficulty - say they hit roadworks - they can actually call you. And all the details stay on your phone as well. If you arrive home and think 'I left something in the taxi', like your wallet or your camera, you can check who the driver was and get back in touch with them.
"At the moment it's just an iPhone app but you could use it on any internet-enabled phone by going to the web and using the system there, in which case the information gets sent to you via text message.
"The next most important thing for us is to get an Android app because a lot of the drivers are switching to Android phones because they are cheaper.
"For many people, it will be the safety factor, the reassurance. They will know all the driver's details and we make it easy from the application for you to quickly send those details to someone via email to say 'I've just got into this taxi with this person and here's all the details'."
Her prize, officially awarded this week, is a cheque for £10,000, and some business and technical support to develop TaxiZapp further.
That support is coming from a shiny new centre in Nottingham called Grace.
The name is an acronym within an acronym, so bear with me. Grace stands for GNSS Research and Applications Centre of Excellence, where the GNSS stands for Global Navigation Satellite Systems.
Grace runs the spectrum from academic research to nestling start-up companies. It's not just concerned with sat-nav. Indeed, there's a lot of work going on inside the centre to tie together all sorts of geospatial information from a variety of motion sensors.
I heard about one application that could be used to follow the progress of firefighters into a burning building from small devices implanted in their boots.
Nottingham, like much of the UK and Europe, can no longer compete with the low-cost manufacturing done in Asia. What it can do instead, however, is pursue hi-tech, high-value activities. All things connected with sat-nav are some of those activities.
I'll be writing a lot about Galileo this year, not least because we will see the first two "pathfinders", as I call them, go into orbit.
This is one of the key US commercial human spaceflight projects now in development. The Dream Chaser already has quite a bit of heritage.
The design calls on a concept initially studied by Nasa about 20 years ago called the HL-20. SNC's vehicle would launch vertically atop a rocket like the Atlas 5. It would carry a crew of seven.
Missions might include crew rotation and cargo re-supply at the International Space Station, but there would be other destinations and duties for an adaptable vehicle like this as well.
Sierra Nevada Corporation was given the biggest award ($20m) last February in Nasa's "seed fund" programme to develop a private crewship capability.
Known as the Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) Program, it will soon announce another, larger round of financing; and SNC expects to be at the front of the queue again. Mark Sirangelo, head of SNC Space Systems, told me:
"This next round of funding, if it holds and it gets awarded, will give us all another year to mature our designs and at that point those who have real programmes will stand out self-evidently.
"We'd like to go to the space station. It's not the only thing we can do but I think we have a lot of value there. At the moment, there is no logical way to take things home from the space station [after the shuttle retires]. We can take three people home on a Soyuz but all the science work that's being done up there doesn't have a way to come back. Our vehicle has a particular use for that.
"Not only can it take people back and forth, but the science experiments that are done at the ISS can come back in their racks in our vehicle, and instead of being subject to the very high g-forces of a capsule landing in the ocean or on the steppes of Kazakhstan - we land on a runway; we have less than 2g when we land. You can go right up to the vehicle when it stops, because we have no hazardous material onboard, and take those experiments straight off.
"So, we have a very unique capability to maintain all the science work going on up there. To the extent that we can make the ISS a very functioning laboratory and maintain the integrity of the work they want to bring back - that seems to be a very good use of our vehicle."
The drop test of a model Dream Chaser returned important aerodynamic data
It was able to show Nasa that it could run these motors for the sorts of durations demanded on a full mission, and, critically, demonstrate a stop-start capability. In the rocket business, re-igniting a motor in the vacuum of space is a big deal.
SNC also built the basic structure, or chassis, of the first flight vehicle, and conducted drop tests on a scaled model. These drop tests, begun from a height of 4,000m, returned important aerodynamic data.
SNC is building the rocket motors for Virgin's new craft, SpaceShipTwo (SS2). But, usefully, from SNC's point of view, the tie-up means the flight model of Dream Chaser can soon begin drop tests using the other part of Branson's project - the SS2's carrier plane known as WhiteKnightTwo. Mark Sirangelo again:
"We're building the Dream Chaser flight vehicle right now. Next year, we should be fully testing the vehicle with atmospheric tests. And we're expecting to be flying orbital flights by 2014, so about three years from now. Our whole testing programme has humans onboard. We're using existing [launchers] so we don't have to be designing that, and our vehicle had 10 years of design with Nasa and six years with us - so it's fairly mature as a vehicle.
"There are other things we could do apart from going to the space station. The ability to service things in space goes away when the space shuttle goes away as well - the ability to repair a satellite, or move it to a new orbit, or to do other work in space. We're seeing this much like a utility vehicle that you could outfit for special purposes.
"We would have an airlock; we could put robotic arms on the vehicle to be able to grab things and manipulate them, using the same structure. This would be much like how Boeing and Airbus re-focus their aeroplanes for cargo or for re-fuelling or for fire interdiction. We can do that. Using the same basic frame, we could have a people version, have a cargo version or a utility version."
Looking at the artist's impression of the Dream Chaser atop the Atlas, it reminds me of the European Hermes shuttle and the way it would have been launched on the Ariane 5 if Esa member states hadn't killed it off.
Mark Sirangelo says Dream Chaser would work very nicely off the top of an Ariane. Are you interested Europe?
The Dream Chaser would launch atop an Atlas 5, but could launch on other vehicles as well