BBC News

Lift-off for British demo satellites

By Jonathan Amos
Science correspondent, BBC News

image copyrightROSCOSMOS
image captionThe Soyuz carried seven satellites

Two British spacecraft, including the first satellite made in Scotland, have launched to orbit.

The pair were sent up on a Soyuz rocket from Baikonur in Kazakhstan.

TechDemoSat-1 was prepared in Guildford by Surrey Satellite Technology Limited, with the assembly of UKube-1 undertaken at Clyde Space in Glasgow.

Both platforms will trial innovative components, sensors and instruments that their producers hope can go on to win future business.

TDS-1 and UKube-1 have emerged from government-backed programmes designed to spur growth in the British space sector.

Ministers have identified satellites as one of their "eight great technologies" that can help rebalance the economy.

Lift-off for the Soyuz occurred on schedule at 21:58 local time (16:58 BST).

Confirmation that the UK missions were safely in orbit came just over three hours later when signals were received from the pair.

The spacecraft were secondary payloads on the flight; its main purpose was to launch a Russian meteorological satellite, Meteor-M2.

Smart approach

TechDemoSat-1 is the bigger of the British duo at 157kg.

Among its demonstration systems is a suite of instruments to study "space weather" - the storm of charged particles, mostly from our Sun, that envelop the Earth. These particles can prove problematic - and even limit the life of - spacecraft systems. One of the instruments, LUCID, was produced by students at the Simon Langton Grammar School in Kent.

TDS-1 also carries an innovative approach to monitoring the state of the ocean surface. It works this out by looking at how GPS signals are scattered off the water.

image copyrightSSTL
image captionSSTL matched the public funds put into TDS-1

UKube-1 is much smaller than its "English brother". The Scottish platform weighs just 3.5kg. But, again, it holds some smart technologies that their developers want to prove in orbit.

Among them is a new imaging sensor that will be used to take pictures of the planet, and a smart device that aims to generate random numbers by detecting impacts from space particles. Such a device might in the future form the basis of much more secure satellite communications.

Public funding for TDS-1 - about £7m - has come in large part from the government's Technology Strategy Board. This investment was matched by SSTL itself.

The UKube-1 project has been administered by the UK Space Agency. Its public funding amounted to about £1m.

Again, Clyde Space put its own cash behind the venture as well, and already this is paying dividends.

"This has been important for the development of our company," said sales manager Robin Sampson. "This has helped us mature into a complete satellite platform provider.

"Previously, we've tended to supply mainly spacecraft sub-systems, but this will be the first time we've put an entire satellite together to go into orbit. And already we've got more platform orders on our books," he told BBC News.

'Like buses'

The intention is that UKube becomes a repeat programme. There should soon be an announcement on a UKube-2.

image copyrightUKSA
image captionUKube-1 will be taking pictures of the Earth using a new imaging sensor

SSTL hopes the same will be true for TechDemoSat.

"A lot of people want to see TDS-1 work first, but we will continue to push for an ongoing programme," said the company's Doug Liddle.

"If you could guarantee a series of launches, it would be an extremely powerful tool for R&D and British industry.

"If it were like a timetable, like catching a bus, you could plan your developments much better. It's been shown to work for academia, for research programmes, and for commercial operators.

"To have that for demonstration satellites as a national capability would be a fantastic thing."

Included in the seven missions on Tuesday's Soyuz flight was SkySat-2 - the second Earth observer for California's Skybox Imaging. The company, which is making snatches of video of the Earth's surface, hit the headlines last month when it was purchased by Google for $500m.

One satellite that was not sent up was M3M. This Canadian platform was pulled from the manifest in April by the North American country's government amid the row over Russia's actions in Ukraine.

image copyrightClyde Space
image captionUKube-1 carries a payload, prepared by AMSAT-UK, that allows students to interact with the spacecraft and follow me on Twitter: @BBCAmos

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