Today (7th May 2021) is National Space Day, a day of celebration to honour all things to do with aerospace, planets, stars and their observation. The day is dedicated to the extraordinary achievements and opportunities that the exploration and use of outer space brings us; from rocket launches to satellite applications.
At the South Coast Centre of Excellence in Satellite Applications we will be observing the day by reflecting on the space achievements within our region over the course of the last 60 years. The space sector in the UK is worth over £14.8 Billion, and our south coast region is packed with space innovation and enterprise with a history of achievements and success across the space sector.
The Space Race between the United States and the Soviet Union was a extraordinary time in history with many far-reaching achievements in science, space exploration and technology. This competition had an influence spurring on developments in the UK too and as a result the 1960s was an innovative time for working in space.
Britain started its own rocket programme (Blue Streak) in the late 1950s in response to the Soviet Union exploding its first nuclear bomb. After much stopping and starting, failed spiralling costs and lack of suitable rocket storage facilities, the Government eventually decided to cancel the programme. But in face of criticism over wasted public money, they looked to give Blue Streak a new purpose – launching satellites.
After a failed collaboration with France and Germany, a very modest budget of £10 million was allocated to develop an independent British rocket called Black Arrow. British Engineers based on the Isle of Wight had to rely on ingenuity and existing technology to build this. Over 20 test rocket launches were completed at the New Battery site on the Isle of Wight. And this british-made rocket was successful in launching the first (and only to date!) British satellite Prospero into space. A satellite that was designed and built at the Royal Aircraft Establishment in Farnborough. Quite the double whammy of achievement for our region. You can still visit the test sites on the Isle of Wight today.
Built in the late 1960s and opening in 1967, the Chilbolton Observatory, which is tucked away in the Hampshire countryside, supported pioneering radio astronomy work throughout the 1970s including observation and analysis of the crop-circles phenomenon.
Since then the observatory has been primarily used for meteorological studies and is home to the world’s largest fully steerable meteorological radar. The dish is able to record detailed information about the height and depth of clouds, whether they are made of ice or water and determine the shape and size of raindrops out to a range of 200 kilometres. And today Chilbolton Observatory also has an increasingly active role in communicating with, and tracking, satellites. All on our doorstep!
Within our region the 1980’s saw the founding of SSTL, a spin-out company from the University of Surrey to transfer the results of its research from small satellite engineering into a commercial enterprise. SSTL is now one of the world’s leading small satellite companies, delivering operational space missions for a range of applications including earth observation, science and communications. The company designs, manufactures and operates high performance satellites and ground systems affordably.
Since the early 1980s SSTL’s satellites have amassed over 520 orbit years, which is about 115 million orbits of the Earth, and have travelled over 5 trillion kilometres – equivalent to travelling to Pluto and back 8 times! More than 6 national space agencies have been formed as a result of launching an SSTL small satellite as part of their first space missions. SSTL averages 2 satellite launches per year, with 43 satellites launched to date from 8 different launch sites around the world. An incredible achievement!
Since the dawn of the space age in the 1950s, we have launched thousands of rockets and sent even more satellites into orbit. Many are still there, and we face an ever-increasing risk of collision as we launch more.
In the 2010s space scientists at the University of Surrey and the space company Astrium unveiled plans to clean up the mess by attaching giant sails to orbiting rubbish to drag it down into Earth’s atmosphere, where it will burn up. This project is called CubeSail and is still going strong today.
The premise of the project is that 25-square-metre sails are packed into a “nanosatellite” no bigger than a shoebox, which can be attached to larger satellites and rockets before they are launched. The aim is then that the sails would pull space junk into the Earth’s atmosphere, where friction from air will cause it to burn up. This project is still on-going, but a great example of innovation and problem-solving within our region.
This decade also saw the founding of the Satellite Applications Catapult, created due to the potential of the space sector, that had been identified by the joint government/industry Space Innovation and Growth Strategy.
The Satellite Applications Catapult are a unique technology and innovation company, boosting UK productivity by helping organisations harness the power of satellite based services. Since they were established they have increased the amount of funding available for satellite related companies, by being instrumental in the creation of the £50 million Seraphim Fund and supporting Satellite Finance Network activities – as well as established the regional centres (of which we are one!) and much more besides!
2020s and beyond!
This era in the space sector within our region is an exciting one, over the course of the last 10 years, space has proven to be one of the UK’s fastest growing sectors – trebling in size since 2010. The UK space sector employs 42,000 people and generates an income of £15bn every year, and if you include satellite services, telecommunications, earth observation and navigation this amount reaches £400 billion globally.
Last year the UK Space Agency provided funding for the creation of “space clusters” across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and at the South Coast Centre we have spent our time working on the development of our own hub that is bringing together local authority expertise and businesses to create strategies for how we can together take advantage of the commercial space race that is upon us. Founding members include ourselves, the EM3 LEP, University of Surrey, University of Southampton, Oxford Innovation and Business Hampshire.
Our region hosts over 200 space businesses, all collaborating to innovate and develop the sector, and in doing so we are building on both the regional and national legacy of innovation in space.