Satellite innovation and major test facility investment driving space industry growth in Science Vale

As the UK forges on with its plans to control 10 per cent of the global space economy by 2030, innovation, strategic partnerships and new government funding in Science Vale are set to play important roles in making this possible.

One organisation leading the way forward is the Satellite Applications Catapult, a space and data company, based on the Harwell Campus.  They manage the £1.5 million ‘In Orbit Demonstration’ (IOD) programme for Innovate UK and recently signed a contract to put Orbital Micro Systems’ new miniaturised weather observing and forecasting technology into space.

The small, light payloads consisting of a 10 x 10 x 15cm sized instrument in a 3U CubeSat satellite, will be launched in Autumn 2018 by NanoRacks.  They will be put into low earth orbit via their CubeSat deployer (NRCSD) on the International Space Station.

Their smaller size not only brings down deployment costs (by up to 95 per cent), but also reduces their carbon footprint, when compared to the usual weather observation satellites that can weigh as much as 2,500 kilograms.  The new technology will bring more accurate global weather observations and data, that will be refreshed every 15 minutes compared to the once or twice a day updates at present.  Better forecasts will also bring wider benefits to other industries, such as lower aviation costs with increased safety, improved crop yields for farmers around the world and better risk management for insurance providers.

Predicting further growth potential and new synergies, US firm, Orbital Micro Systems, also decided to base their headquarters in the Science Vale UK Harwell Campus, home to many of the UK’s leading space industry experts.  This is a significant vote of confidence in the UK and Harwell’s space cluster ambitions.

Following a UK Space Agency facilities’ review, it also became clear that the UK needed its own satellite testing centres to boost the country’s space economy and compete with European facilities.  As a result, the government has announced funding for a new £99 million test facility to be built at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory (RAL Space) on the Harwell Campus.

Due to open in late 2020, the new facility will test satellites as large as seven metric tons.  It’s expected to bring further commercial interest and investment into this well-established space hub, which is already home to over 75 space-related companies, including the European Space Agency (ESA).

The site will provide a package of services including vibration and acoustic testing, electromagnetic compatibility and centre of gravity testing, pyroshock simulations and an antenna test range.  RAL Space currently runs a smaller test facility for satellites weighing up to 3.5 metric tonnes and several small thermal vacuum chambers to service mainly government and academia-led projects.

So as one door closes, new ones continue to open as Science Vale firms push the boundaries of space technology through innovation, research and development.  With new facilities, the UK is set to compete more equally with its European counterparts, regardless of the outcome of Brexit and achieve its ambitious targets.