Tim Peake, the first British ESA astronaut
‘It’s impossible to look down on Earth from Space and not be mesmerised by the fragile beauty of our planet.’ That is a quote from Limitless (ISBN 978-1-529-12557-3), Tim Peake’s autobiography. Tim, ex-Army Air Corps Apache helicopter pilot and Boscombe Down test pilot, was launched into space on 15 December 2015 as the first British European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut and conducted a spacewalk during the six months he spent on the International Space Station. He was selected from over 8,000 candidates for six years’ intensive training to prepare for a mission he was not guaranteed until the UK increased its overall funding of the ESA and contributed to the Human Spaceflight programme.
British rocket failure
Eight years later, the first post-Brexit British mission to launch a space rocket from under the wing of a modified Jumbo jet failed to boost it into a low-level (555 km) orbit to inject nine baby satellites, each the size of an electrical toaster. The press reported an ‘anomaly’ with the second stage of the rocket. Investigation will probably determine that the problem was caused by the hydrogen and oxygen fuel used in the second stage. This fuel has been used in the second stage of all ground-launched rockets since the Apollo programme, but never on an underwing rocket. Britain’s hopes of a national spaceport in Newquay, Cornwall are temporarily dashed.
UK Space Agency
The UK Space Agency was founded as an executive agency of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. It is based in Swindon, Wiltshire, and has an annual budget of £469M. Tim attended the official announcement on 23 March 2010, as he was part of a team that produced a 20-year vision and strategy report for future growth of the UK space industry from £9B and 68,000 jobs to £40B and 100,000 jobs. It also called for the UK to double its contributions to ESA, which has a UK facility at Harlow, Oxfordshire. The objective was for the UK to initiate and lead three ESA space missions up to 2030, but there has been no commitment to this plan.
So, where is Space in Surrey?
Future advances in space operations are heavily dependent upon technology innovation, especially in miniaturisation of onboard systems. Reducing the weight of payloads to be launched into space leads to reduced cost but can still improve operational performance. This requires investment in research and practical implementation of its results. So, look no further than the University of Surrey, which has its own Surrey Space Centre. Started in 1979, it is the UK’s largest academic centre for space engineering and has pioneered research and development of low-cost, small satellites. In 1985, it formed a spin-out company, Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd, to exploit the output of its research. EADS Astrium bought out the shares of SSTL in 2008, but Sir Martin Sweeting remains the Chairman of the University facilities and an Executive Chairman of SSTL, forming a strategic collaboration with industry. The University also has its own Satellite Mission Control Centre to control and command satellites to execute mission operations and download data to users.
The Space Centre has been, and is, involved in a number of international programmes, ranging from the build of affordable microsatellites for Earth observation, to disaster monitoring, to space debris removal, and to navigation payloads for GPS satellites. Recent work includes a space weather monitoring system to protect civil aircraft in UK airspace and to protect critical infrastructure, such as nuclear power stations, from cosmic ray spikes. Through another partnership agreement, SPRINT, the Centre is helping industry to develop new space products combining the latest robotic and artificial intelligence technology.
And just across the Hog’s Back, we have ….
… the former Defence Research Agency at Farnborough, where I completed my Navy career and joined in its transition to become QinetiQ, with its own Space Department. It is the main supplier of small satellite systems to ESA, and its Proba V (V for vegetation) satellite, about the size of a washing machine, maps land and vegetation cover across the whole globe every two days. QinetiQ is the prime contractor for the Initial Berthing and Docking Mechanism for the International Space Station. Last year, the Lunar Pathfinder satellite was launched in lunar orbit to provide communications for landers and orbiters. This is a joint project supported by QinetiQ and SSTL for ESA. QinetiQ recognises that space is no longer the sole domain of sovereign nations. Both public and private organisations are investing in development and operation of future space missions. This calls for greater sharing of knowledge and innovation resources and new partnership models across sectors and nations. A compelling argument for British space companies and academia to work more collaboratively with the European Space Agency.