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UK Space Agency lines up science priorities

The UK Space Agency’s Science programme advisory committee has named EChO, a UK-led study of planets outside the Solar System, as its top priority in European space science.

A statement of interest, crafted at a two-day meeting in June and published on 28 July, said the UK should prioritise EChO above other European Space Agency medium-term (M-Class) missions.

M-Class missions will launch between 2017 and 2022. ESA plans to narrow the shortlist of missions from three to two in October this year.

LOFT, a large X-ray timing observatory, should be the next highest priority, followed by STE-QUEST, a mission testing Einstein’s equivalence principle using atomic clocks, the group said.

Last on the list is MarcoPolo-R, a potential contribution to the NASA Osiris-Rex mission to return a sample from an asteroid.

The advisory group’s meeting was the first since the UKSA’s creation, and it took over responsibility for space science from the Science and Technology Facilities Council.

According to the chairman and deputy chairman of the SPAC committee, John Zarnecki and Mike Cruise, the committee took into account recommendations from the STFC’s particle physics, astronomy and nuclear physics science committee in making its decisions.

This marks the first time that the “dual-key” system—involving both organisations—has been used in considering new projects.

The committee also recommended funding the first phase of data processing for the global astrometry survey, GAIA, as well as continuing funding for the Planck mission.

It recommended extending financial support for candidate projects for ESA’s large mission (L-class) after NASA pulled funding for the mission in March this year, forcing selection to be deferred by ESA until spring 2012.