Gee Whizz: Oxford in Orbit

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When it comes to anything space-related, the UK kinda sucks, or at least pales in comparison to the monopoly of the USA and the deflated yet nevertheless impressive reputation of Russia. Nevertheless, Oxford is doing its bit for planetary exploration, suggesting that even those dear academics we know and love believe in the classic phrase, ‘if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em’. A team based at the University has been working in conjunction with NASA on their Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. Hardly the most catchy project title of all time, but it’s actually just ever so slightly interesting. Alongside the Americans, Oxford scientists are working on a programme that aims to use infrared cameras to find ice deposits in the craters of the moon. If such deposits are indeed found, then this is the next step in establishing a base on the Moon for future generations. In short, water signifies a sustainable environment, meaning that if the project succeeds, Oxford scientists will be partly responsible for our kids’ kids scurrying around on the surface of the big cheese wheel in the sky, or the honeymoon on the Moon that you’ve always dreamed of. But this isn’t the only space-related venture that Oxford’s been dabbling in. Go one planet along from Earth, and you get to Mars, where even the perfect combo of Oxford and NASA doesn’t always get the best results, as illustrated by the rather miserable failure of the Observer project a while back. Undaunted by this initial lack of success, the boffins came back with a vengeance, eventually creating the Mars Climate Sounder, currently orbiting rather successfully around the red planet. Meanwhile, back on Earth, Oxford scientists are working on the ‘umbilical cord’ for a mechanical ‘mole’, currently being designed to be sent beneath Mars’ surface in order to unveil the secrets which lie below – and just deciphering that mixed metaphor seems like enough work for several PhD students. It doesn’t even stop there, with projects based on Jupiter, Saturn, and even further afield all within the orbit of Oxford’s questing minds.And so it seems that, while the UK may be severely lagging behind the rest of the world when it comes to space exploration, Oxford’s researchers are trying their best to make sure that Britain manages to get on the planetary map. Even if you need a telescope to see it.
by Gareth Peters

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