Tim Peake, first British ESA Astronaut

Tim Peake, first British ESA Astronaut

Tim Peake says he is thrilled to have been given the opportunity to go to the International Space Station (ISS).

The UK astronaut told BBC News it was a “huge privilege” and the culmination of everything he had worked for during his aviation career.

A former major and helicopter pilot in the British Army Air Corps, Tim Peake will join Expedition 46 to the ISS, launching in November or December 2015.

Tasks once in orbit will include helping to maintain the 27,000km/h platform and carrying out science experiments in Esa’s Columbus laboratory module, which is attached to the front of the 400-tonne complex.

It is understood there is a strong chance he will also get to perform a spacewalk.

“I am delighted to have been assigned to a long-duration mission to the International Space Station,” he told me.

“On a personal level, this feels like the high point of an incredibly rewarding career in aviation.”

“It is a huge privilege to be able to fly to space. I look forward to the challenges ahead and I shall be doing my utmost to maximise this opportunity for European science, industry and education to benefit from this mission.”

Forty-one-year-old Mr Peake hails from Chichester, and is so far the only Briton ever to be accepted into the European Astronaut Corps.

In some senses, he will become the “first official British astronaut”, because all previous UK-born individuals who have gone into orbit have done so either through the US space agency (Nasa) as American citizens or on independent ventures organised with the assistance of the Russian space agency.

Tim Peake getting some advice from Michael Foale – the most experienced “UK spaceman”

As an Esa astronaut, “Major Tim” will be flying under the union flag on a UK-government-sponsored programme.

Major Tim’s assignment is made as British space activity is experiencing a big renaissance.

The space industry in the UK is growing fast, employing tens of thousands of workers and contributing some £9bn in value to the national economy.

The government has also raised substantially its subscription to Esa, and the agency has responded by opening its first technical base in the country.

Ecsat (European Centre for Space Applications and Telecoms) is sited on the Harwell science campus in Oxfordshire.

Traditionally, British governments have steadfastly refused to get involved in human spaceflight, and even the current administration puts only a minimal amount of money into this specific Esa programme.

But Dr Thomas Reiter, the director of human spaceflight at Esa, said he hoped the benefits that would accrue to Britain through Major Tim’s flight might encourage deeper participation in the future.

Tim told BBC News: “I am indeed hoping… that the returns in terms of science, technology, applications and the outreach aspect – that this will all help the decision at the next ministerial council, and the follow-ons, to hopefully increase the UK’s participation in human spaceflight in the ISS exploitation programme, and of course in the perspective of exploration beyond low-Earth orbit.”

There is sure to be huge interest in Major Tim’s adventure.

The recently returned ISS commander, Canadian Chris Hadfield, attracted a big following for his tweets, videos and songs from the platform. His rendition of David Bowie’s A Space Oddity has become a YouTube hit.

Major Tim will be endeavouring to achieve something of the same impact.

“I do strum the guitar badly,” he admits, but as for singing, the Briton says he is not in the same class as Chris Hadfield. “Under Pressure”, a 1981 release with Freddie Mercury and Queen, is Major Tim’s favourite Bowie number. “Quite apt, I suppose!”

Scientists are already working on ideas for experiments that the UK spaceman could do on the ISS.

Britain recently joined Esa’s European Life and Physical Sciences in Space (Elips) programme, which organises much of the research conducted on the orbiting platform.

Studying systems and processes in its microgravity environment gives researchers a unique perspective. In an Earth laboratory, gravity pulls hard on everything; but if the notions of “up” and “down” can be removed – as is the case on the freefalling station – then some unusual things start to happen.

Gases and liquids that are heated do not rise and sink as they would normally, and suspended particles do not settle out into neat layers of different sizes.

By removing the “mask” of gravity, it then becomes possible to study the effects of other forces more easily.

Philip Carvil, from the UK Space Biomedical Association, said: “During his mission, Tim will likely be performing a host of experiments that can range from human physiology to material science.

“With around 700 experiments performed on the ISS thus far, the opportunity for research development continually inspires hundreds of institutions around the world to create experiments to better understand the Universe around us and improve the quality of life on Earth.

“At this very moment, several groups are already testing their projects on the ground and/or simulated microgravity for integration in future missions.”

Helen Sharman was the first Briton to go into space in 1991 on Project Juno, a cooperative project between a number of UK companies and the Soviet government. She spent a week at the Mir space station.

The most experienced British-born astronaut is Nasa’s Michael Foale. He has accumulated 374 days in orbit, completing long-duration missions to both the ISS and Mir.

Tim Peake will be the first “official UK astronaut” to go into orbit
He was selected by Esa with five other individuals in the class of 2009
His background is in the forces. He still flies with the Territorial Army
Training has involved learning Russian and using Russian equipment found on the ISS
He has also had to become proficient in the robotic systems used on the station
Major Tim has completed survival training, living underground for a period of days
Last year, he also lived under water as preparation for a mission to an asteroid
A key part of the training has been learning the flight controls of a Soyuz capsule
Most UK-born astronauts have flown under the Star and Stripes. Major Tim will fly the Union Flag.

 Text and photos courtesy of BBC and ESA.

Titan’s Magic Islands

Titan’s Magic Islands

Saturn’s moon Titan is proving to be one of the most fascinating places in the solar system. The only body other than the Earth that we know has seas, the Cassini-Huygens mission has shown us such a great deal, and left us with many new questions. One of these that captured the imagination has been the so called ‘magic islands’.

These probably aren’t islands at all, but some thing is going on that we can’t deduce exactly, with LARGE areas of land appearing and disappearing.

Kraken Mare 'Magic Islands'. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASI/Cornell
Kraken Mare ‘Magic Islands’. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASI/Cornell

The Cassini team turned their attention to Titan’s mysteriously variable ‘Magic Island‘, covering an area of some 260 square kilometres in the Ligeia Mare, first seen in July 2013. Images created from Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) data returned during the August 2014 flyby showed that bright features were again present at the former location, but their appearance has evolved. Waves, bubbles or floating debris may provide the best explanation for these features at the present time.

A further exciting development from the August 2014 Titan flyby provides evidence that Kraken Mare has at least two ‘Magic Islands’ of its own. The Kraken transients were captured by Cassini’s Visible and Infrared Mapping Spectrometer (VIMS) within several hours of observations. The VIMS data show a 5-micron-bright detection at the same location as the radar transients, interpreted as being similar to specular reflections from waves, wet ground or wet floating debris.

It is possible that the appearances of these ‘magic islands’ are related to seasons, but could it be possible there’s some tidal effect at play and it’s just good old gravity affecting the liquid, or lighter elements in this dense sea? Seems like the data and images so far have whet everyone’s appetite for more missions to Titan as it has a great deal more to tell us.

Cassini HuygensTitan