Space telescope mirror

UK satellite industry: still flying 50 years on

Amid general UK plc doom and gloom, one technology sector resolutely maintains a 10 per cent growth rate, and its prospects are always looking up.

The UK space industry is booming. No sooner did Guildford-based Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd unveil its new 3,700m2 satellite clean-room facility, than the European Commission chose the company to assemble the next batch of eight Galileo satellite navigation payloads – adding to the 14 that it is already building.

The country's leading space firm Astrium UK lost that bid (still enjoying a win-win result, however, being the main SSTL shareholder), but it can console itself with a full order-book dominated by its minibus-sized Eurostar E3000 telecom satellites - costing upwards of '100m each - along with prime contractor status for numerous European Space Agency missions:'the magnetic-mapping Swarm mission, made largely in Hertfordshire, launches this July.

UK universities and research centres, meanwhile, are themselves active players in the space field - the first instrument finished for Nasa's James Webb Space Telescope (pictured above) has been the UK-led Mid Infrared Instrument. The space industry contributes around '7.5bn to the UK economy annually. The Coalition has taken note and is sticking to the Labour government's 2010 Space Innovation and Growth Strategy, with activities including seedcorn technology investment - such as funding SSTL's NovaSAR small radar satellite - and a 'Catapult Centre in Space Applications' to foster novel downstream applications - where growth (and most of the UK space industry's 70,000 jobs) are concentrated. This will be based at Harwell in Oxfordshire, home to an existing ESA site.

Launch sight

This entire industry, and all its rampant growth, can be traced back directly to an epoch-making event half a century ago. On 26 April 1962, the Ariel 1 satellite was launched into an elliptical Earth orbit by a US Thor-Delta rocket from Cape Canaveral in the US, an occasion marked this month by a two-day London Science Museum symposium.

Weighing 62kg, Ariel 1's spherical gold-hued aluminium and fibreglass body was built by Nasa but its seven scientific payloads came from UK universities - the first time that British hardware reached space to stay. Previous experiments briefly rose out of the atmosphere aboard suborbital Skylark rockets launched from the British test range in Woomera, South Australia, from 1957.

"Scientists and the military shared a common interest in the upper atmosphere," recalls Ariel 1 team member Ken Pounds. "Ballistic missiles were the big new weapon, and the military wanted to know more about the medium through which they would fly."

Some early Skylark experiments were crude - such as detonating hand grenades to estimate atmospheric pressure - but UK researchers gained experience in designing for space conditions; so when Nasa offered to fly other nations' science experiments British researchers were first in line. "The Americans were happy that the payload from the Brits was not just some second-rate bundle of instruments, but really cutting-edge experiments to study the upper atmosphere and solar radiation," Pounds says.

Professor Peter Willmore of the University of Birmingham's School of Physics and Astronomy and member of the International Astronomical Union, led the UK involvement. He says: "It all happened very quickly by modern standards - from agreement to launch in under two years - but this was something we very much wanted to do, and it was really a different world with much less bureaucracy."

A telex link was installed between University College London, coordinating the payloads, and Nasa Goddard in Maryland. Like most early satellites, Ariel 1 would be 'spin-stabilised' - spinning like a top to maintain orientation - with probes sampling the surrounding void.

With a total of 520 transistors aboard, Ariel-1 also probed the frontiers of early 1960s technology. Ariel 1's X-ray detector incorporated the first proportional counter in orbit, measuring particles' actual energy spectra compared to simple Geiger counters previously flown. A 100-minute-duration tape recorder stored measurements made worldwide - another first.

"Industry worked closely with us," says Ariel veteran Ken Pounds. "The then-British Aerospace Corporation in Bristol worked on electronics, along with Pye Ltd in Cambridge; 20th Century Electronics near Croydon developed our X-ray detectors, based on nuclear industry experience."

An excited Nasa upgraded Ariel-1's ride rocket from the trouble-prone Scout to the larger Thor-Delta. Birmingham's Peter Willmore flew to the US with the payloads as luggage (which unfortunately travelled on to Bermuda for a day). In the weeks that followed launch, Ariel 1 threw light on the Earth-Sun connection, linking solar flares with X-ray surges for the very first time - but nemesis lay waiting.

"All of a sudden the X-ray detector went berserk," Pounds explains. The US Air Force had, on 9 July, detonated a nuclear weapon, Starfish Prime, at 400km altitude. Its radiation saturated several Ariel 1 instruments and degraded its solar panels.'The satellite continued operations until November 1964, but was eventually crippled (re-entering in 1976). "Fortunately the deal struck with Nasa was for six Ariels in all," adds Willmore. "This was always envisaged as a long-term programme, and lasted until the end of the 1970s." From Ariel 3 in 1967, satellites themselves were built in the UK.

"Ariel worked like a calling card, showing prospective partners what the UK could do," says team member Len Culhane. UK space was on a course of international partnerships that lasts until this year, beginning with a leading role in early European satellites. On the industrial side Ariel was no less influential, argues Doug Millard, Science Museum space curator: "It was the dynamism of the space scientists that actually necessitated UK industry to start learning how to build spacecraft."

Future directions

That early experience helped the UK to take a leadership role in European telecommunications satellites at a time when many believed Europe's space programme should remain purely scientific - one 1971 analysis by the European Conference of Postal and Telecommunication Administrations estimated telecom satellite revenues would not even pay for the ground infrastructure needed, much less actual satellites; but for once the government championed the right horse - with lasting consequences. "Probably about 40 per cent of the world's commercial telecom satellites are now made in the UK," notes David Parker, science director of the UK Space Agency.

Satellite bodies are made at Astrium Stevenage and payloads at Astrium Portsmouth, the two sites defining a 'space corridor' along which much of the rest of the UK space industry is aligned; the actual integration of these two satellite halves occurs over at Astrium's Toulouse site, however. It is also, perhaps, one reason why the UK's space activities remain obscure: our national achievements stay camouflaged, as it were, within international cooperation.

It is true that within space science the UK generally works within an ESA context. Ken Pounds, later founder of Leicester University's space department, argues that is not necessarily a bad thing: "If you have to compete to get your payload on an ESA mission, it has to be a really good experiment. Standards are set highest in international scientific programmes."

Similarly, on the industrial side Astrium UK thrives within European aerospace behemoth EADS Astrium. Bob Graham, the company's head of engineering, recalls Stevenage when it was still turning out Blue Streak missiles: "In terms of in-house engineering manufacturing, we have seen fantastic growth since that 1960s start. With the investment we've put in over the last couple of years, we have got a capacity here for six to eight spacecraft per year."

Have Ariel-style national space missions gone forever? The UK Space Agency (UKSA) - founded as part of the 2010 growth strategy - holds operational control over the UK's '230m civil space budget. "We have a budget we can do things with, unlike the previous British National Space Centre where other organisations controlled different bits of budget," explains UKSA's Parker.

"Something like 85-90 per cent of our budget goes to ESA, because that is where most space programmes are built collectively across Europe," explains David Williams, UKSA director-general. However, he explains that UKSA has started backing national missions too, making its money go further with smaller, cheaper satellites - the kind of microsatellites that SSTL has made its name with, as well as the 10x10x10cm CubeSat standard.

Devised in California, with a cottage industry springing up to supply structures and subsystems, CubeSats make space access feasible for small businesses, university departments or amateur groups. An obvious comparison, perhaps, is the way kit-built PCs began the so-called democratisation of computing in the late 1970s.

Satellites for all?

This analogy with the evolution of the PC goes only so far, however. CubeSats have absolute power and performance limitations, and once launch costs are factored in, a mission might still cost the price of small house. There will also be legislative and regulatory considerations to be resolved. Satellite industry veteran Pounds still sees a lot of potential: "Where projects like this are really useful is in doing hands-on work, introducing the challenges, and excitement of space to a new generation."

Might Ariel 1 have flown as a CubeSat today? More or less, concludes Culhane: "You would never put all those experiments together on a single platform these days... but considering electronics miniaturisation, Ariel 1's X-ray detector could probably now fit onto a CubeSat."

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