UK space sector: the sky’s not the limit

Ruari McCallion highlights some of the home-grown success stories contributing to the UK space sector’s global esteem.

Wielding the Sabre

At the beginning of November 2015, Reaction Engines – based at the Culham Science Centre near Abingdon in Oxfordshire – announced that it had sold a minority stake in itself to BAE Systems, for £21 million – valuing the company at more than £100 million.

With additional UK Government funding of £60 million, Reaction Engines will be able to move to the next stage of developing its SABRE (Synergetic Air-Breathing Rocket Engine) concept, which it claims will enable air travel at up to five times the speed of sound within Earth’s atmosphere, and up to 25 times the speed of sound in outer space.

SABRE engine cutaway

The Sabre engine combines jet and rocket propulsion in a single unit. The company says that the turning point in its development came when it demonstrated key enabling technology in the shape of ultra-lightweight heat exchangers, 1/100th the weight of existing technologies, which allow the cooling of very hot airstreams from more than 1,000 °C to minus 150°C in less than 1/100th of a second.

Since then, it has received favourable support and validation from the European Space Agency (ESA) and US Air Force.

Reaction Engines is also the company behind the Skylon project, an unpiloted, reusable spaceplane intended to provide reliable and cost-effective access to space.

“ESA are confident that a ground test of a sub-scale [SABRE] engine can be successfully performed to demonstrate the flight regime and cycle, and will be a critical milestone in the development of this program and a major breakthrough in propulsion worldwide.” – European Space Agency report to the UK Space Agency, 2011.

Rosetta – “Britain’s comet mission”

Rosetta and Philae at the comet
Rosetta and Philae at the comet

Rosetta – the 10-year mission to land a probe on a comet – which came to fruition a year ago, involved up to 50 contractors from 14 EU countries plus Switzerland; the US; Canada, and Australia and owed a great deal to the UK’s space industry:

  • e2v, based in Chelmsford, designed and supplied the Civa camera system that takes pictures of the comet’s surface, as well as the Rolis system that filmed the descent. The company also built three other camera systems on the main spacecraft.
  • ABSL Space Products (formerly AEA), designed, developed and produced smaller, lighter and more reliable (than the traditional nickel-cadmium) advanced batteries for both Philae and the Rosetta main spacecraft.
  • Surrey Satellite Technology Limited, designed a “momentum wheel” that stabilised the probe as it descended and landed on the comet.
  • Moog developed the tanks used to store helium in Philae out of its Bradford base.
  • Scientists from the Open University and Rutherford Appleton Laboratory were involved in the contract for the Ptolemy gas analyser instrument on the lander. This instrument had to reduce a lab full of chemistry equipment to fit into a space the size of a shoebox.
  • BAE Systems produced a “smartphone” for space communication at its technology centre in Great Baddow, Essex. It enables control of the spacecraft’s speed to fractions of a millimetre per second, through immense distances across space.
  • Airbus Defence and Space (formerly Astrium) was the major subcontractor for the platform at its base in Stevenage.
  • Luton-based Telespazio VEGA Group developed on-board software.
  • SciSys was responsible for the mission control system development and maintenance.
  • ERS Technology was involved with the development of subsystems including the reaction wheels, solar array drive motors and Philae harpoon motors.

UK Spaceport

The Spaceport will enable take-off and landing of reusable space vehicles, such as Skylon and Virgin Galactic.
The Spaceport will enable take-off and landing of reusable space vehicles, such as Skylon and Virgin Galactic.

In July 2014, the UK Government announced its intention to build a Spaceport, which will enable take-off and landing of reusable space vehicles, such as Skylon and Virgin Galactic.

Key factors to be taken into consideration include:

  • an existing runway which is – or is capable of being extended to – more than 3000 metres in length
  • the ability to accommodate dedicated segregated airspace to manage spaceflights safely
  • a reasonable distance from densely populated areas in order to minimise impact on the general public

The shortlist of possible sites includes:

  • Campbeltown Airport (Scotland)
  • Glasgow Prestwick Airport (Scotland)
  • Llanbedr Airport (Wales)
  • Newquay Cornwall Airport (England)
  • Stornoway Airport (Scotland)
  • RAF Leuchars (Scotland) – potential temporary facility

The Government initially hoped for 2018 as the date for the Spaceport to be up and running but this timetable appears to have slipped a bit.

The initial consultation outcome was published in March 2015, and a detailed technical specification of Spaceport requirements is due to be published before the end of the year.