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UK takes 'open source' route into space

Jonathan Amos | 16:50 UK time, Wednesday, 17 November 2010

The fundamental barrier to greater space activity is the cost of access.

If people didn't have to part with squillions to get up there, far more spacecraft would go into orbit than is currently the case. And it's a problem that amplifies itself as well.

UKube artist's impression

UKube-1 will be some 30cm in length

High launch prices drive the need for big, rigorously tested spacecraft. They have to be that way because when you've paid so much to launch, you have to make damn sure your bird works. In-orbit failure is simply unthinkable. Add in insurance premiums and licences and the costs spiral still further.

It works against innovation, too. Taking risks is, well, risky. So doing space is a process that is necessarily conservative. If only we could lower launch costs, the spiral might unwind; there would be more opportunity and hopefully even greater innovation.

So while we wait for the truly reusable, low-cost launch vehicle, what's to be done?

Well, some have gone down the CubeSat route - the roughly 1kg, 10cm-square boxes that come in standard form and can be launched en-masse as secondary passengers on rockets.

It's an approach that can dramatically reduce a mission bill. We're talking tens to a few hundred thousand pounds as opposed to tens to a few hundred million pounds.

The compact boxes are proper spacecraft, just in miniature. They have a structure, solar panels, onboard processing, attitude control, comms and - increasingly - very capable payloads.

It's a challenge of course to do missions where the available power is measured in the odd watt, but we know from our mobile phones just how much function can be packed into a very small space.

And in CubeSats now, teams are trying to do many of the same things that have always been done in space - astronomy, Earth observation, space weather studies, microgravity and biology experiments, technology demonstration, etc.

CubeSats will never be a match for their multi-tonne cousins, but they do represent a more inclusive kind of space activity where far more people could realistically get involved in a project.

Conceived a little over 10 years ago in California, CubeSats are now being developed and flown around the globe.


The Indian PSLV is a regular CubeSat carrier

Britain, it is probably true to say, has been a bit behind the curve on this one, which is why the UKube-1 (pron: "You-Cube-One") initiative is most welcome.

The UK Space Agency (UKSA) has issued an Announcement of Opportunity [80KB PDF] to interested parties who'd like to fly instruments on a British CubeSat set to launch late next year.

Up to three payloads from UK-based providers will be selected for the flight.

They will go in a spacecraft called a "3U", which is essentially three 10cm CubeSats joined end to end.

Funded by UKSA, the Technology Strategy Board and the Science and Technology Facilities Council, the UKube-1 project is being led by the Glasgow company Clyde Space and EADS Astrium (who've made some of biggest satellites ever flown in  space).

You could call Craig Clark, the CEO of Clyde Space, something of an evangelist for CubeSats.

His company makes and sells CubeSat components, and these items don't just go into "smalltown" university-built boxes.

Clyde kit is going in the CubeSats of major US programmes run by the Army, the National Reconnaissance Office, the National Science Foundation and Nasa. Go Glasgow! Craig told me:

"CubeSats are a rapidly growing area and we've been involved almost since the beginning. It's really about getting access to space, and the way CubeSats are launched makes that much easier. Everything is standard, which means you can go on to our website and buy a power system and solar panels with your credit card. It's got to that level. We do all that, including batteries and comms systems, but we also do a pulse plasma thruster - a propulsion system for a CubeSat. And we're developing the platform for UKube with Strathclyde University.
"It's great that the UK Space Agency should now get involved in CubeSats. The Americans may be much further ahead in using them but we've got such good capability in our universities and small companies that it's ideal for us. It fits the British way of doing things.
"There's huge potential and so many ideas out there. We've been looking at imaging systems. It's definitely within the realms of technology today to have sub-three-metre [resolution] imaging from a 3kg satellite. That's the kind of stuff we should be doing in the UK"

To give you an idea of how cute some of this stuff is, Imperial College London is involved in a US CubeSat project called Cinema which may launch around the same time as UKube.

Imperial's Magic sensor

The Magic sensor head is tiny

Imperial is famous for its magnetometers - instruments that can trace the magnetic fields that shape space plasmas. It was an Imperial-led magnetometer team working on the Cassini mission that made the sensational discovery of an atmosphere at Saturn's moon Enceladus.

Well, Imperial has developed a tiny magnetometer called Magic for CubeSat applications. You can see the size of the sensor head (picture right) that sits out on the end of a boom. It weighs just 3g. Cinema will study space weather - the phenomenon that arises when the stream of charged particles billowing away from the Sun crashes into Earth's magnetic shield.

The AO on UKube-1 is open until 8 December. The launch is likely to be on an Indian PSLV. The hope is that UKube-1 will be followed by UKube-2, 3, 4, 5, etc in subsequent years. Dr Ronan Wall, from Astrium, in the UKube programme manger:

"That's certainly the vision - the idea is that you would have different universities or companies building them so that they could all have a go. The hope is that it would lead to more payloads coming into the space industry; we'd have new supply chains. If we embrace 'open source space', stuff will just happen, innovation will just happen, in a way that large formulaic programmes militate against. We can stick new electronics on CubeSats and just see what happens. It's a playground for innovation."


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  • 1. At 8:36pm on 17 Nov 2010, Graham_G3VZV wrote:

    The UK Space Agency is not the only organisation currently developing a UK cubesat - A group of volunteer amateur radio enthusiasts from AMSAT-UK have been designing and building FUNcube since late last year.

    FUNcube is a tiny 10x10x10cm cubesat and its main purpose, will, when it reaches space, be to provide an exciting new tool for educators in schools to use to inspire their pupils in science, radio technology, space and all the STEM subjects. The UK will need more scientists and engineers in the future and cubesats are an ideal way to provide such outreach.

    It is anticipated that FUNcube will be ready for launch in the 2nd half of next year. You can learn more about the project at

    The project also includes a simple “Ground Station” receiver to hear the signals from the satellite directly outside the school buildings – actually it will be just a specially developed USB dongle.

    We are currently looking to recruit interested teachers to help us develop some really exciting software to display the experimental data and messages on the ground.

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  • 2. At 11:41pm on 18 Nov 2010, Simonm wrote:

    So, we can put 100s of cheap but capable satellites in orbit for the price of a few big ones. But surely every satellite however big or small eventually becomes space junk? A few big ones we can perhaps manage, a few puffs of propelant can put them into a degrading orbit. But if everybody and their dog can put up a satellite (or vaguely unguided lump of metal), surely that's a bit dodgy.

    This really doesn't sound like a good idea!

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  • 3. At 1:56pm on 19 Nov 2010, Jonathan Amos wrote:

    @Simonm. The Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee (IADC) has put forward guidelines that all missions should follow with regard to end-of-life responsibilities. They apply as much to small satellites as big ones.

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  • 4. At 7:33pm on 21 Nov 2010, lhearn wrote:

    The tens of billions spent on renewing the UKs weapons of mass destruction could better be spent on a space program that would be a world leader instead of a second rate space power at best.

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  • 5. At 8:07pm on 25 Nov 2010, Raymond D Wright wrote:

    You said "So while we wait for the truly reusable, low-cost launch vehicle, what's to be done?". Rather than concentrate on building tiny satellites that we can launch by the bagful, why does the UKSA not set about promoting efforts to build that re-usable launcher? I and my collaborators are working on just such a thing (see "EARL Project" in, by the way.

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  • 6. At 10:45am on 26 Nov 2010, A wrote:

    "We're talking tens to a few hundred thousand pounds as opposed to tens to a few hundred million pounds."
    What does this mean?

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  • 7. At 1:41pm on 26 Nov 2010, rocketeer wrote:

    @A: that means the typical launch cost for launching a cubesat and big satellite respectively

    we really need to be more adventurous, make some mistakes, learn from them and move forward!!

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  • 8. At 6:38pm on 28 Nov 2010, xestr wrote:

    Its great that Dr. Wall is "in the [] manger" this much in advance of Christmas, and his final point is the important one: innovation. The space sector has wrestled with its inherent technological dichotomy for years: high-tech cutting-edge requirements and (misconstructed) public image, dependant upon decades-old established and properly characterised technologies.

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  • 9. At 10:46pm on 11 Dec 2010, Stoatwarbler wrote:

    British attitudes to space are best summarised by pointing out that the UK govt decided to get out of space in the 1970s on the basis that there was no commercial sense in continuing to find the Blue Streak project and a maximum possible market of 2-3 communications satellites per year.

    There are a number of alternatives to conventional rockets as launchers (or space elevators), many of which are within our technological capabilities now. One needs only to look at science fiction in a lot of cases to find designs we can build _now_.

    It'd take a lot of political will - and the knowledge that a single successful endeavour could render half of the world's aerospace industry redundant overnight.

    One of the most intriguing rockets never launched was to have been over 600 feet long, made of 8mm steel and assembled using submarine-building techniques in a shipyard. Launch mass: 21,000 tons. Payload to LEO: 500 tons. This was Sea Dragon and was the preferred moon exploration launch vehicle before the space race decreed building things as light as possible with a single goal of getting to the moon and back.

    Reviving some of the older ideas may well pay dividends - but as long as there is very tight control of who's allowed to launch, may never happen.

    And then of course there's HOTOL - maybe this will work, may it won't - but the odds are this British design idea will be perfected by someone else.

    The UK has the _lowest_ space budget of any EU country which has a space program. That we achieve so much with so little is more a testament to the sheer determination of the people involved than anything else. (Disclosure, I work with those people...)

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  • 10. At 11:55am on 17 Dec 2010, workrestandplay wrote:

    It can't be beyound this countries ability, even in the current climate of spending cuts, to build a basic, single use launch rocket capable of delivering small payloads cheaply into space. It just needs a little bit of imagination from our politicians and from the public. It would give a boost to industry and provide a stimulus to the teaching of science and physics in schools.

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  • 11. At 11:12am on 18 Dec 2010, TonyM wrote:

    Now, if you were to combine ideas from the Space Shuttle, HOTOL and White Knight/Spaceship One, you might come up with a HOTOL having a cargo bay to hold Spaceship One.

    The HOTOL would fly to the edge of space, then open its cargo bay to release Spaceship One, which could inject itself into a desired orbit. HOTOL would close the cargo bay doors and return to Earth, with Spaceship One de-orbiting in the already proven manner on completion of its mission.

    Science fiction or just cross-fertilization of existing technologies?

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