A team of British astronauts could blast into the cosmos as part of the first all-UK space mission.
The landmark trip is being billed as a result of a new partnership between the UK Space Agency and Axiom Space, a US-based company that has sent crews into orbit on SpaceX rockets.
Four British astronauts could be headed to the International Space Station (ISS) for two weeks as part of the future mission. It would be a commercial trip supported by the European Space Agency (ESA).
This agreement paves the way for UK astronauts to conduct scientific research in orbit, and to inspire millions of us here on Earth
Dr Paul Bate, UK Space Agency
During their stint on the ISS, the team of Brits will carry out scientific research, demonstrate new technologies, and participate in education and outreach activities.
Although no crew members have been selected, Tim Peake is being floated as the best candidate to lead the mission. The retired astronaut was the last Brit to go into space when he spent six months on the ISS in 2015. He also held several roles at the ESA before retiring as an astronaut in January.
But when asked on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme if he would come out of retirement for any future UK mission, he hinted at a possible return, saying: “I don’t think I’ve ever been in retirement.”
Commenting on the announcement, Major Peake, said: “It is a very exciting development – there is a lot happening in the space sector right now and I think for the UK to be at the forefront of this new era of exploring commercial opportunities is a fantastic thing.”
He acknowledged there were several hurdles to overcome before the idea is finalised, including crew selection and training and getting approval from Nasa, but said it was hugely encouraging that the UK had “started the ball rolling”.
Major Peake became the second British citizen to fly to space after Helen Sharman, who travelled in 1989 as part of Project Juno – a private British space programme.
Rosemary Coogan, a Northern Irish astrophysicist who joined the ESA astronaut training programme last year, could also be a top candidate for the mission.
British universities, research institutions, and private companies have been invited to submit ideas for experiments and technology projects that could be carried out by the team.
Dr Paul Bate, chief executive of the UK Space Agency, said: “This agreement paves the way for UK astronauts to conduct scientific research in orbit, and to inspire millions of us here on Earth.
“It takes thousands of people to complete a crewed space mission and return the astronauts safely home, highlighting the huge variety of careers available in the UK space sector right now.
“There is much to do, and this agreement is the springboard for the UK Space Agency, Axiom Space, and the mission sponsors to assess how we best push forward the frontiers of knowledge and innovation, and showcase the power of space to improve lives on Earth.”
The UK Space Agency is working with Axiom on plans for a commercial mission with the full support of the European Space Agency.
UKSpace president Dr Alice Bunn said: “Since the first astronauts landed on the moon over 50 years ago, human spaceflight has captured the imagination of billions of people.
“But space is no longer for the privileged few; we have witnessed incredible growth in the application of space technology and data to everyday lives, and we recognise the immense and specific value of humans being able to push the boundaries of science and technology operating within the unique conditions of space.”
She added that the agreement is an “incredibly exciting one”.
The announcement comes as science minister George Freeman is due to open the London Stock Exchange today (October 25), where he will speak about opportunities to bring further investment into the UK space sector.