Science & Environment

UK tech to aid private space shot

Bigelow space station (Robert Bigelow)
Image caption Bigelow is planning an inflatable space station

UK technology could aid a US company's ambitions to send spacecraft beyond low-Earth orbit.

Bigelow Aerospace's plans include telescopes that could be sent into deep space.

The UK's Astronomy Technology Centre (UK ATC) has signed a memorandum of understanding with Bigelow.

UK ATC has developed an infrared sensor for the US-European James Webb Space Telescope.

Bigelow's space telescope concepts include operating beyond the Moon, more than one million kilometres away at one of the Lagrange points - gravitational "sweet spots" where spacecraft can hold station without expending too much fuel.

But before any deep space mission UK technology could be tested onboard the private space station Bigelow is planning.

The space station, to be launched in 2014 and operated from 2015, will consist of three habitation modules.

Orbital expansion

Bigelow's modules are based on Nasa inflatable technology, also known as "expandable" technology.

The US company has already launched two technology demonstrator modules, Genesis I and Genesis II. Launched flat, the modules expand in orbit like a balloon to create habitable volume.

"The very purpose of expandable habitats was initially to go beyond [low Earth orbit], so they are ideal for such applications," Bigelow's Washington DC operations and business growth director Michael Gold said.

"Certainly there is a wide variety of activities that could be conducted at the Lagrange points, whether it's serving as a hub to support Lunar or Martian exploration, or supporting next-generation astronomy missions."

Because the space telescope spacecraft's design could be based on the station modules, both could use the same solar panels from Scotland.

This is because following a February meeting in Edinburgh between UK ATC, Scottish space companies and Bigelow, Glaswegian solar panel specialist Clyde Space has become a bidder for station module contracts.

It was following this Edinburgh meeting that UK ATC signed the MOU with Bigelow. To conduct discussions about possible projects the UK ATC also signed a non-disclosure agreement (NDA).

Because of the NDA, the UK ATC declines to talk about its discussions with Bigelow.

Technology test-bed

However the space station could be a test bed for a range of technologies the UK ATC would want to use for international government funded space science.

Scotland's satellite data communications specialist STAR-Dundee has also declined to comment about any relationship with Bigelow.

STAR-Dundee's managing director Steve Parkes did not deny that his company had met with Bigelow but said "I have nothing to say and we do not give out the names of our customers".

He added that his company did not meet with Bigelow at the Edinburgh meeting.

In October, Bigelow announced that it had signed MOUs with organisations in six nations.

Four of those six are still unknown but the other two are the UK ATC and the state-owned Swedish Space Corporation. The Swedish company has not revealed what its MOU is about.

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