What are the latest trends in the space industry? What can satellites now do which they couldn’t before? Can the UK maintain its international presence post Brexit by becoming a leader in the international space industry? BILL READ FRAeS reports on some of the highlights of the RAeS President’s Conference on the commercialisation of space.

On 21-22 November, the RAeS held a two-day conference at No.4 Hamilton Place on the Commercialisation of Space. The conference looked at a wide range of topics, including new applications for satellites and how the UK hopes to develop and increase its international presence in this developing industry sector, including the development of its own launch systems. Here’s some of the highlights.The UK and Space


The UK and Space 

The UK earns £13.7bn from its space industry. (UK Space Agency)

Income from the UK space industry in 2014/15 was £13.7bn, equivalent to 6.5% of the global space economy. However, this not large compared to some other nations. “The UK is not a big space nation,” admitted Richard Peckham, Chairman of UKSpace.

However, the UK is hoping to increase its international space presence. Robert Waters, Head of Industrial Strategy at the UK Space Agency, forecast how commercial investment in space industry is expected to grow from £1bn a year to £8bn/year by 2030. Richard Peckham explained how the UK plans to increase its share to 10% (£500m/year) by 2030. However, this ambition could only be achieved through a strong partnership between academia, government and industry.


Lack of launchers

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Orbital Access’ proposed modified Orbital 500 aircraft would launch small satellties into orbit from the air. (Orbital Access)

Currently, the UK has a space industry sector that is strong in some areas and weak in others. The vast majority of the UK’s income (74%) is derived from space applications with 15% coming space operations, 5% from space manufacturing and 3% from ancillary services. Unlike many other nations, the UK does not have a sovereign Earth-observation capability.

One big gap in the UK’s space industry portfolio has been the absence of an indigenous launch capability. To date, Britain has only put one spacecraft into orbit which was the Prospero satellite launched by the Black Arrow rocket in 1971. However, this omission may soon be rectified. The conference heard from two different UK-based companies planning to develop launch systems - one of which was formally announced at the conference.


Reaction Engines

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Reaction Engines development path envisages a SABRE flight demonstrator vehicle in around 2023.

One already much publicised project to create a UK space launch capability comes from Reaction Engines based at Culham in Oxfordshire which is developing the SABRE (Synergetic Air Breathing Rocket Engine) which can be used either to propel a reusable Skylon spaceship into orbit or to power a hypersonic aircraft around the Earth. The SABRE engine is scheduled to be ready for its first flight in 2023 but what vehicle it is used on is still under consideration. Mark Wood, COO and Engineering Director of Reaction Engines spoke at the conference, saying that he hoped that costs could fall to £6m per launch.

There was also a presentation from Stuart McInyre, CEO of Orbital Access which is aiming to send satellites in orbit from a modified commercial aircraft. After taking off from a from a conventional runway, the modified Orbital 500 aircraft, could launch payloads of up to 500kg into orbit. In May Orbital announced a partnership with Spaceport Cornwall to operate from Newquay Airport.


Mystery project revealed 

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Secretive UK launcher company Orbex revealed its plans for the first time at the RAeS Presidents Conference.

The second day of the conference saw an announcement from UK-headquartered company Orbex that it is developing a new orbital micro-launch vehicle capable of delivering a payload of up to 165kg into Sun-synchronous orbit. Rumours of this development were first heard in July but this was the first official confirmation of the project. According to Chris Lamour, founder and CEO of Orbex, the company has been secretly testing rocket engines for the launcher over the past year and has partnered with a composite centre and 3D printing experts The new rocket will be one of the highest performing smaller launchers and will use a novel, sustainable fuel system to create a low inert mass fraction. By using composite construction, the launcher will have 30% less inert mass and will only require half the number of engines. 

The vehicle subsystems are to be developed in-house, including the rocket engines, avionics, GNC, software and structure technologies. The rocket is to be built at a factory in Scotland. He also revealed that it is finalising its first launch contract with an unspecified Asian nation to carry a 50kg scientific payload.

However, Chris Lamour was cautious about releasing too many details of the new launcher, including its name, what fuel it will use, where in Scotland it will launch from (there have been hints that it will be in Sutherland) and when the first launch will be (some reports say as soon as next year). However, the company did reveal that there have been 45 tests of the rocket’s propulsion system and that development work is continuing.


Government support 

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Artist's impression of the UK’s new National Satellite Testing Facility due to open in 2020. (STFC)

Tim Just, Head of Space, Innovate UK, explained how the UK Government now recognised the importance of the space sector to the UK economy and had published three national space technical strategy and roadmap reports in 2011, 2014 and 2017.

To demonstrate its commitment to the UK space sector, the British Government has invested £99m of Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund money into the creation of a National Satellite Testing Facility (NSTF) at Harwell in Oxfordshire. Due to open in early 2020, the NSTF will provide co-located facilities for the assembly, integration and testing of space payloads and satellites, as well as facilitating building of larger satellites which currently have to go abroad to be tested. 

An additional £4m has also gone to a National Space Propulsion Facility (NSPF) to develop and test space engines at Wescott Venture Park in Buckinghamshire. The NSPF will allow companies and academia to test and develop space propulsion engines, alongside a new test and construction facility for Reaction Engines which is developing the SABRE air-breathing rocket engine.


Test project 

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The UK Space Agency helped to fund the 2014 UKube technology demonstrator nano satellite. (Clyde Space)

Dr Graham Turnock, CE of the UK Space Agency also gave the example of the UK Space Agency’s support for UKube 1, a technology demonstrator nano satellite built by Clyde Space. Launched in July 2014 for a 14-month mission, the payloads flying on UKube-1 were selected following a UK Space Agency competition which received over 20 submissions. UKube 1 tested several new technologies in space, including a GPS device to measure plasmaspheric space weather; an Earth-imaging camera that can test the effect of radiation on space hardware using a new generation of imaging sensor and an experiment to demonstrate the feasibility of using cosmic radiation to improve the security of communications satellites and to flight test lower cost electronic systems. 


Spaceport UK

There was also discussion of the creation of the UK’s first space port. Mark Wood remarked that every viable spaceport in the world has some degree of government support, in addition to private funding. A spaceport in the UK would also need changes to legislation, regulation and airspace access.


The B-Word

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Graham Turnock, CE of the UK Space Agency assured delegates that the UK intended to remain an international partner in future space projects.

Although it was not addressed as a specific topic, one major uncertaincy hanging over the UK space industry is what happens after the UK leaves the European Union in 2019. The Director General of ESA, Prof Jan Woerner, explained how the UK will still remain a member of ESA after Brexit. However, there were still some unresolved issues, including the UK’s participation in EU space programmes.

Dr Graham Turnock assured delegates that the UK intended to remain an international partner in future space projects. “We have no plans to go it alone,” he said. He gave the example of a recent international contract from the French space agency CNES in partnership with Airbus Defence & Space and Thales Alenia Space for the MicroCarb satellite which is to be built in Belfast and tested in Harwell. MicroCarb is designed to monitor and creation and absorption of CO2 on the Earth and in the atmosphere to better understand the carbon cycle. It can also measure atmospheric methane.

The UK space industry currently accounts for £5bn worth of exports, 49% of which go to Europe - trade which may be adversely affected if the UK fails to secure a good deal for leaving the EU. “The EU is our biggest customer, so Brexit is a massive threat,” admitted Richard Peckham from UKSpace. Some speakers were more forthright. “Anyone who doesn’t think Brexit is not a calamity doesn’t know what they’re talking about,” declared David Williams, Chairman Advisory Board, Seraphim Space

Richard Peckham also admitted that Brexit would force the UK to engage more globally - not just in Europe, saying: “If the Government is serious about an industrial strategy sector deal for space, it gives us a generational opportunity for the UK to assert itself as a global space nation. He was also confident that the space industry sector has the potential to be a strong tool in post-Brexit Britain. “Space can give us the means to project a self-confident and outward-facing global Britain,” he said.

Peckham was also optimistic that Brexit might bring new opportunities for the UK to co-operate bilaterally with other nations in addition to the European Space Agency (ESA). This suggestion was also made by UKSpace President, Andy Green, who said that, while the UK was proud of its contribution to ESA, it should also think about how to package out non-ESA space efforts into a national space programme.

The UK must also ensure that it remains a good place to do business in. “We have many foreign-owned companies with no emotional attachment to the UK,” said Richard Peckham. “Therefore, the UK must remain a good place to invest.”

Tim Just, Head of Space, Innovate UK agreed that the UK needed to remain proactive. “If we’re not creating that future, then we’re not part of it,” he said.


Rise of small satellites

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The global market for small satellites is expected to rise to over 400 a year by 2020. (Satellite Applications Catapult)

The conference also looked at recent global trends in the satellite industry. Craig Clark, CEO of Glasgow-based cubesat manufacturer Clyde Space explained how recent years had seen an increase in demand for small satellites. “Cubesats are like iPhones of satellites world,” he said. “There will be lots more in the future.” Small satellites were now being mass produced at lower costs and faster production rates so that it was now possible for start-up companies to launch newly commissioned satellite missions within nine months.

Patrick Wood, Director International Business Development, Space Systems, Lockheed Martin showed a prediction from Satellite Applications Catapult that over 2,500 small satellites were expected to be launched between 2020 and 2025 - a market that the UK could compete in to provide launch systems. Other companies are already developing small satellite launch systems - Patrick Wood cited the example of Rocket Lab which launched its first new additive manufactured carbon composite Electron launch vehicle from New Zealand in May.


There is nothing that a satellite cannot do 

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Planet Lab Dove satellites under construction. (Planet Lab)

Another topic discussed at the conference was new applications for satellites. Jen Marcus, VP US Government Strategic Partnerships, Planet Labs explained about the work being done by his company to commercialise Earth images. Based in San Francisco, Planet Labs is a commercial company supplying Earth imaging data. The company currently has 190 satellites in orbit comprised from two constellations (RapidEye and SkySat) which were acquired from other users supplemented by its own Earth observation cube sat called the Dove. Planet designed and manufactures the Dove, and currently produces 20 per week .

Each Dove continuously photographs the Earth’s surface as it completes an orbit around every 90 minutes (about 16 complete orbits every 24 hours). The satellites are controlled by Planet’s Mission Control team using custom automation software that can schedule imaging windows, add new software in-orbit and download images to 30 ground stations throughout the world.

Planet is currently augmenting its network by launching Doves in ‘Flock’ constellations. In January 2014, 28 cube sats for the Flock-1 constellation were launched from the International Space Station. This was supplemented in March 2016 with a further 20 on the Cygnus CRS OA-6 cargo mission. In June 2016 12 more Dove satellites were put into orbit, followed by a additional 88 in February 2017, both launched from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre in India. This was followed by Flock 2k, consisting of 48 satellites, on 14 July 2017 launched aboard a Soyuz-2.1a. On 31 October 2017, four Doves for Flock 3m were launched from a Minotaur C rocket, together with six of SkySats. Planet Lab is also working with low-cost launch provider Rocket Lab to launch its satellites into orbit.

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Planet Lab image of Fiery Cross Reef, Spratly Islands, South China Sea on 4 January 2016. (Planet Lab)

Using these satellite constellations, Planet is able to provide 3m resolution images on the Earth on a daily and sometimes ever hourly basis. Because the images are being constantly updated, it is possible to see both gradual and rapid changes over time and Planet Labs are marketing the data to a wide variety of different end users.

Jen Marcus gave examples of how images from the satellites were being used insurance companies to help detect change, identify fraudulent claims, and verify renewable assets - such as the presence of residential outdoor swimming pools. Images can also be used to monitor primary forests and detect the presence of illegal mining and logging activities. Planners and local authorities can use the images to monitor urban growth and detect unpermitted building. Planet Lab images are also used for climate monitoring, crop yield prediction, disaster response, defence, energy and finance applications.

It is also possible to use object recognition software from the images to answer particular questions - such as how many houses are there in Pakistan, how many cars are being imported using photos of cars parked at docks, comparing well pads in Texas against those in Siberia, or to count the number of ships in the top ten ports over time.


Internet for all 

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OneWeb plans to connect everyone in the world with the Internet by 2027. (OneWeb)

Greg Wyler, Founder and Executive Chairman of OneWeb is using satellites for a different application - to improve global access to the Internet. According to OneWeb, over 50% of the world is currently remain without reliable high-speed connectivity. This includes regions of rural America, Europe and Asia, as well as emerging markets, where schools or community centres are without access. 

‘Internet access is critical for digital government, health and education, and lack of access impairs financial growth when markets cannot develop, trade and become economically relevant to each other.’ (Quote from Website)

Internet access is also vital to provide communications for disaster relief and emergency response situations caused by natural or man-made disasters. 

OneWeb has set itself the ambitious goal of connecting every unconnected school by 2022 and of connecting everyone in the world by 2027.

In early 2018 OneWeb plans to launch ten production satellites. “These will not be demo satellites that go ‘bing’ but the real thing,” explained Greg Wyler. This will be followed six months later by a full launch campaign to create what will eventually become a constellation of 900 satellites to enable affordable Internet access. “We will be launching satellites every 21 days,” said Wyler.

The satellites will connect to small, low-cost user terminals which will emit LTE, 3G and WiFi to surrounding areas. These terminals can be powered by batteries or solar cells. The OneWeb service is intended to act as an extension to existing networks covered by ISPs and mobile operators’ networks.

OneWeb is also looking at expanding in-flight connectivity to provide business jet, commercial airline and military aviation customers with airtime services that will include weather, navigation and health monitoring of the aircraft.

To create this large number of satellites, OneWeb is using mass production techniques to create small satellites built with fewer components which are lighter to launch.

Given the large numbers of their satellites, OneWeb is also keen to reduce the risk of space debris creation by choosing ‘clean orbits’ with minimal debris and using on-board propulsion systems to steer clear of any debris that they might encounter. The OneWeb satellites are also designed to de-orbit automatically at end of their service life and burn up in the atmosphere. “We’re using more expensive materials which will burn up more easily,” said Wyler.



Other companies are also helping on low-cost solutions to increase connectivity. Graham Peters, MD of satellite data communications services Avanti Government Solutions described how the company has developed ECO to deliver wi-fi services at affordable prices. The system works by using a solar power cell on roof of a school to power a wi-fi transmitter which can be used by the local community. Avanti is currently working on a contract with Kenya to provide Internet connection to 10,000 secondary schools so that teachers can access resources more easily and students can learn faster and better.

A full report, including other topics covered at the space conference, will appear in the January issue of AEROSPACE.

Bill Read
24 November 2017

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