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The Great British Space Age: The UK firms opening the door to space

Joseph Flaig

The Skimsate concept from Thales Alenia Space (Credit: Thales Alenia Space)
The Skimsate concept from Thales Alenia Space (Credit: Thales Alenia Space)

In July, the government named Sutherland in the Scottish Highlands as the location for the UK’s first ever spaceport.

It was hailed as the start of the ‘Great British Space Age’ – but, in truth, a host of innovative companies has been pushing the UK space industry to new heights for several years. Now, they are perfectly placed to take advantage of the new spaceport. We spoke to firms behind some of the most inventive, audacious and exciting engineering in a sector that is ready for lift-off.

Read part one, on satellite technology pioneer Oxford Space Systems, here.

Read part three, on the companies tackling the satellite backlog, here

Read part four, on how the spaceport in Sutherland will boost UK industry, here.

Using balloons to get around the weather


Bad weather could delay the large-scale launches at Sutherland spaceport – but they are no issue for the StratoBooster. Created by a spin-off team from Teesside University and mentor Shaun Whitehead, the StratoBooster is a combined balloon-and-rocket launch vehicle. The hydrogen-filled balloon will transport the payload 32km up – above 99% of the atmosphere – before the rocket loaded with ammonium perchlorate composite propellant takes advantage of the low air pressure to fire upwards, reaching Mach 5 (1.7km/s). 

“There is no weather at 32km,” says Whitehead. “Every day is a lovely sunny day.”

Positioned as a cost-effective alternative to large launches at the spaceport, the StratoBooster has other potential advantages. A sub-orbital launcher will be the height of an A4 piece of paper, while a larger orbital version could be the size of a briefcase. 

The result, says Whitehead, is a low-emission vehicle capable of launching from anywhere in the UK. Projects are likely to proceed to launch much quicker, unhindered by the challenge of transporting huge, fuel-heavy vehicles to remote locations.

Opening the door to space

Open Cosmos

Rafael Jorda Siquier’s company Open Cosmos is, he says, “obsessed” with making space accessible. The Harwell-based firm promises to launch nano-satellites – 1-10kg when fuelled and equipped – into orbit for 10% of the cost elsewhere, going from the beginning of the project to launch within 18 months.

To do so, the company has built standard template designs for the nano-sats featuring identical electrical and mechanical interfaces. The standardised tool allows other companies to create bespoke satellites for varied missions.

The firm recently secured a contract with the Satellite Applications Catapult and the UK Space Agency to provide its services, including the 6U qbee satellite platform, full testing and launch procurement, for the In-Orbit Demonstration programme. The programme gives companies the opportunity to put their commercially promising ideas into orbit at a relatively low cost.

The Sutherland spaceport is “really good news,” says Siquier. “It means we can develop our other services on UK shores. It brings that launch capacity closer to us.”

Swooping into orbit

Thales Alenia Space

Home-grown space firms have flourished in recent years, but foreign companies have also found British hubs such as Harwell and Bristol fruitful places to work. Thales Alenia Space in the UK is an offshoot of the Franco-Italian company, the largest satellite manufacturer in Europe, and has advanced space engineering facilities in the two areas and in Belfast. 

One of its most cutting-edge designs is the Skimsat, highlighted at this year’s Farnborough Airshow. A fanciful concept image showed four of the spacecraft with solar panel ‘wings’ apparently swooping and banking in tight formation, emitting multi-coloured beams towards the Earth. The satellite does, however, promise some substantial advantages. 

The satellite bus is designed for low-cost ‘constellations’ for quick and secure global coverage. It will weigh only 125kg and will fly in very low Earth orbit, only 220km up. Missions will need much smaller observation equipment than spacecraft in higher orbits, lowering the cost. The satellites will also be destined to burn up in the atmosphere when not kept aloft by electric propulsion. 

Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

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