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Emerging opportunities provide a launchpad for the UK's space sector

Back in 2010, the government published the Space Innovation and Growth Strategy report, which ultimately lead to the consolidation of the UK Space Agency and the creation of the Satellite Applications Catapult. Broadly speaking, the former's role is to develop and promote space infrastructure, while the latter's role is to use the space sector to develop commercial applications.

The strategy is intended to help the UK capture 10% of the global space market by 2030, which would represent an industry worth around £40billion (£5.6bn today) and employing 100,000 people. To put this in perspective, the revenues for the entire manufacturing sector in 2011 were £140bn.

Putting something into space is an expensive operation and frequently beyond the resources of individual countries. Hence the European Space Agency (ESA), of which the UK Space Agency is a member, allows a pooling of expertise and funding to provide for big, lengthy and expensive missions focused on space research in science, exploration, technology and applications. However, not all spacecraft are big.

Caroline Harper is a programme manager at the UK Space Agency and one programme that comes under her wing is UKube-1 – a 'CubeSat' satellite of similar shape and size as a box for a whisky bottle.

"If you are a small start up trying to get your innovative new widget flight tested in space, you don't want to wait for years to get a slot on a big mission; it makes much more sense to use a CubeSat if you can, because it represents a quicker and cheaper route into space," she said.

"The Space Agency is tasked with promoting economic growth, so that is where these relatively cheap and quick missions, using off the shelf components to build the spacecraft, can contribute. The spacecraft that ESA is building are orders of magnitude bigger; it is a very different game."

CubeSats came into being when Professor Bob Twigg and Jordi Puig-Suari from California Polytechnic State University challenged their students to see what technology they could squeeze into a 10cm cube. Their specifications became an industry standard and, ten years after the first CubeSat went into space, the number of deployments has reached three figures. One British company that has entered the CubeSat arena is Clyde Space, the company that won the contract to make UKube-1.

Robin Sampson, the company's spacecraft sales manager, sees UKube-1 as a great opportunity for his company, as well as for the UK space sector. "The UK Space Agency's attitude was that it saw there was a lot happening within the CubeSat sphere, but not a lot happening in Europe. I think what it wanted to do was to showcase and pilot a rapid development CubeSat mission, and so prove that you could build one of these to a professional standard, approved by a professional organisation like Astrium, and conduct meaningful science and test multiple pieces of equipment at the same time. Ultimately, this is to the benefit of UK technology providers such as ourselves and to others who provide payloads."

Clyde Space is providing two of the payloads – the S-band patch antennae and transmitter and an experimental mission interface computer. "It will be the first time they have been space qualified so, for us, the really great thing is to show them working in space. There is lot of interest in them as state of the art CubeSat components," said Sampson.

UKube-1 is a 3U CubeSat, with dimensions of 30 x 10 x 10cm. One unit is typically taken up with the standard subsystems needed for operation, leaving two units for the payloads. These payloads were selected by the UK Space Agency following an open invitation for proposals. Alongside the Clyde Space technologies on board will be a cmos imager demonstrator developed as a collaboration between e2v Technologies and the Centre for Electronic Imaging at the Open University. This imager features new sensor technology, based on a 0.18µm cmos process, being developed and evaluated for space use. This will also act as a testbed for radiation damage effects in space.

CubeSats can also have a role in education, as Harper pointed out. "We have a payload called FUNCube, which will allow kids in schools to download real housekeeping data from the spacecraft almost in real time and to do their own experiments on that data. We hope that will encourage interest in STEM subjects."

FunCube was developed entirely by volunteers at the amateur radio organisation AMSAT-UK. TOPCAT, meanwhile, is a payload that will measure the regions of space just beyond the Earth's atmosphere – the ionosphere and plasmasphere – in order to help GPS users by monitoring and subsequently reacting to variable space weather conditions that adversely affect the Global Positioning System. The payload will consist of a specialised dual frequency GPS receiver that is suitable for operation in the space environment. The development has been led by a postgraduate at the University of Bath, with support from Chronos Technology, RAL and MSSL.

The final payload, JANUS from EADS Astrium, uses the radiation environment for true random number generation – apparently a difficult task with valuable implications in security. Another objective is to determine the single event upset (SEU) effects on a Xilinx fpga. These sram based devices potentially allow in orbit reconfiguration with positive consequences for functionality and data rates, but cosmic rays can have unwanted effects.

Payloads have to be self funding, but with the UKSA taking on the much of the cost of the spacecraft and negotiating and financing the launch, the costs are no longer prohibitive. The Satellite Applications Catapult can also play a role when it comes to commercial planning. Nick Wise, head of applications, commented: "The idea is to empower all sides of the business, but SMEs in particular. They can have access to capabilities that they wouldn't normally be able to access because of the huge costs involved. They can then kick start the development of their activities by using, at low cost, the facilities and expertise that we have put in place.

"For example, we have a missions operation centre at Harwell. If you are looking to build or deploy a CubeSat, such as the UKube mission, you have the option of taking space in our operations centre and running the mission from there. Similarly, we have a cloud computing environment. For climate and environmental monitoring from space, this allows you to put your data in a large scale computing environment and run your analysis and processing on it without having to invest in that infrastructure."

CubeSats are not just the toys of academia or for proving technologies for use in bigger satellites. There is global interest in not only using CubeSats as technology demonstrators, but also in low orbit swarms for communications and observation for relatively short lived applications.

Military uses are possible, where they can be deployed for a few months, while there is talk of building the world's largest radio telescope using CubeSats and even of them being used as an alternative to UAVs for drone type applications.

As such, there is an opportunity for companies developing deployable technologies. "There is a real interest in this," claimed Samson.

"Deployable technology and CubeSats go together hand in hand because you are limited in the amount of power you can generate, for example, from a surface area of 1m2. One of the things that we have done is to develop deployable solar arrays and people are looking at different deployable devices for CubeSats that maximise the real estate that you have in space. It is a big area of research."

Examples of Clyde Space developments include the solar panels, a drag sail that can be used to de-orbit the CubeSat quickly –an important element in dealing with the space junk problem – and a high gain antenna.

CubeSat programme
UKube-1 is not, as yet, part of a bigger programme, but there is already talk of a UKube-2. Harper explained: "The aspiration is to have a rolling national programme of CubeSats and this one is the agency's first national launches. But it is only a small part of what we do; most of our involvement in space missions comes through our involvement in ESA."

UKSA is funded centrally by the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills and funding for the next few years has yet to be finalised.

In some respects, UKube-1 is a toe in the water – a demonstration of some new technologies, combined with a working process of getting a national CubeSat in space. However, an accepted frustration in the space sector is that nothing moves at the pace that some would like. The sticking point is getting the launch dates and secondary payloads, such as UKube-1, must wait until the primary payload is ready for action. The primary in this case is a Russian satellite whose launch has been delayed several times – UKube-1 was initially intended to fly in the summer of 2013. Now, a launch date of 27 March 2014 from the Baikonur launch site in Kazakhstan now looks realistic.

The UK Space Agency has negotiated the launch at 'very favourable rates' under a Memorandum of Understanding with the Russian Space Agency, Roscosmos. UKube-1 and TechDemoSat will be secondary payloads; TechDemoSat (see New Electronics 9 April 2013, 'Flying the Funky Stuff') is a larger satellite initiated by the Technology Strategy Board and made by Surrey Satellites that, as the name suggests, is intended to demonstrate technology in space. It, too, was originally scheduled for a 2013 launch.

UKube-1 remains the focus for Clyde Space and the project is already paying dividends. "It is the biggest thing on our radar at the moment," claimed Sampson, "and, until it is in space, operating and has completed its operational life cycle, it will remain the biggest thing we are working on.

"But we have been able to leverage our experience from UKube-1 and now have another couple of platforms in the pipeline. It is looking like we will be providing satellites for other people in other countries quite soon. That is fantastic for us and points towards the real objective of UKube-1as a funded component of the UK Space Agency's growth strategy."

Author
Tim Fryer

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