What's space ever done for me?

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The Independent Online

This week marks the 10th anniversary of World Space Week (4-10 October), an international celebration of science and technology, which commerates the launch of the first human-made satellite, Sputnik 1. But far from solely being a celebration of space exploration, this week recognises the space research that has led to benefits in our everyday lives that people might not know about.

UK research bodies such as the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) and the British National Space Centre (BNSC) are undertaking a wealth of exciting projects, which are more relevant to our lives than we presume, from predicting the weather, to stopping terrorists and even keeping you healthy.

From a health perspective, scientists at the Open University and London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine are currently researching how analysing someone’s spit using space exploration equipment designed for analysing samples of Martian soil and cometary ice, can help save lives. Using equipment called a mass spectrometer, a person’s mucus or phlegm, mixed with saliva, can be analysed to produce a fast and accurate diagnosis for the bacterial infection, pulmonary tuberculosis (TB). The objective is to develop a device that can be easily used in developing countries where resources are poor and needs are great, with a trial of the device being planned for Malawi.

Beyond health, some projects are helping the world's power grids to stay up and running. Some of NASA's current mission spacecraft are carrying UK-built equipment which can help determine the speed and direction of solar storms. These storms see the sun spew out hot gases across space at around a million miles an hour. They can pose a hazard for astronauts and affect communications and satellites – disrupting technologies ranging from GPS to power stations. A huge solar storm in 1989, for instance, shut down Quebec's entire power grid. The images taken from the UK-built equipment represent a major step forward in predicting the arrival of these storms at Earth, allowing us to prepare for the impact they may have.

Space science is also helping to control human-led events that could influence our lives. Gamma-ray detectors originally designed by space scientists to understand huge events deep in space, are now being used by security forces to detect radioactive materials that could be used by terrorists. Substances used by terrorists to create bombs can be radioactive. But gamma rays don't just come from man-made materials. They're emitted naturally by such things as granite, coffee, bananas and fertiliser. To detect such terrorist activity, you have to be able to tell these substances apart. The devices built at Southampton University and spin-off company, Symetrica, are sensitive enough to tell the difference between dangerous materials and other substances. They are also light enough to carry, meaning they can easily be used to scan vehicles as they pass through ports, borders and other checkpoints.

It is not just terrorism that space research is helping to stamp down on. A Mini Gamma-Ray Camera has been developed for use in Nuclear Medicine, as a spin-off from an x-ray telescope launched by NASA and supported by STFC. This low cost, high performance, hand held gamma camera is being used in the detection and imaging for concentrated, non-invasive treatment of cancer. Current procedures can require investigative surgery to assess the spread of primary tumours. The device will help to reduce the cost and trauma of surgery.

Space science is also helping to tackle environmental issues. A high resolution camera known as RALCam3 is being designed and built at an STFC laboratory to help monitor deforestation and detect illegal logging in the Amazon. The camera will be flown onboard the Brazilian government's Amazonia-1 satellite in 2012 and will be capable of producing extremely detailed images of Brazil's rainforest in the fight against deforestation, preventing this biologically valuable eco-system from being destroyed.

The UK is a world-leader in space research. Most recently further steps were taken towards the creation of a new European Space Agency (ESA) research centre in the United Kingdom. This arena is an area where we can excel with world-class research and ultimately make a really valuable contribution to the UK economy.

Tim Bestwick is Innovations Director at the Science Technology and Facilities Council, and is supporting the Science: [So what? So everything] campaign. For more information visit www.direct.gov.uk/sciencesowhat.