Space experts from Strathclyde are supporting an inaugural launch from the UK by testing vital satellite technology.

The IOD-3 Amber satellite is expected to be the first of  a series of satellites to be launched into orbit next month as part of Virgin Orbit’s Inaugural Spaceflight from Spaceport Cornwall in Newquay.

The Start Me Up mission is jointly led by the US and UK governments, and the satellites will provide unique worldwide data ranging from maritime radar ‘fingerprints’ to satellite phones’ GPS locations.

Orbital launch

In a historic moment for UK space, the mission marks the first ever UK orbital horizontal launch, as well as the first international launch for Virgin Orbit, and the first commercial launch from Western Europe.

Sir Richard Branson’s company has developed a rocket system known as LauncherOne which will be used to launch six satellites in the first launch.

Horizontal launches are enabled by modified aircraft carrying rockets which can be launched once the aircraft reaches a certain height – usually 35,000 feet – sending the rocket and its load into orbit at eight thousand miles an hour.

The Amber 6U satellite – around the size of two shoe boxes and built by Glasgow-based AAC Clyde Space – has already been successfully integrated into the LauncherOne system.

Space rocket

The space rocket will be attached to Virgin Orbit’s jumbo jet ‘Cosmic Girl’ and dropped off the aircraft’s wing after take-off, removing the need for a costly dedicated airport launch site to be built.

A team at Strathclyde’s Centre for Signal and Image Processing, led by Principal Investigator Dr Christopher Lowe, were on hand to support mission critical testing of the satellite’s Radio Frequency (RF) sub-systems.

RF testing simulates multiple radio frequencies across the spectrum to ensure devices with integrated wireless technologies – such as satellites – function as expected. The safe and effective use of radio frequency is crucial for all such devices.

Dr Lowe, a Research Fellow in the Centre’s Applied Space Technology Laboratory within Electronic and Electrical Engineering, said: “Testing is a critical element, if you can’t talk to your satellite then the mission is at high risk of failure. So much hinges on good communication with the satellite to ensure that things are going as planned.”

The team developed their expertise during a raft of previous space projects, including developing nano satellite spacecraft, design work for Scotland’s first satellite and being involved in the first collaboration between the Mexico Space Agency and NASA on a spaceflight project.

Gain expertise

Dr Lowe added: “We have a nice heritage of supporting other first activities which has allowed us to gain expertise in developing these test bed satellites. This has proven useful for integrating new instruments and carrying out tests where there’s a need to emulate the flight satellite.

“It means we have the equipment and expertise to fairly accurately emulate how the spacecraft will behave using our hardware.”

Dr Lowe also travelled to Cornwall to carry out in-situ testing, and added: “Our research is being applied on board real space missions, which is a demonstration of its impact and relevance.

“Being involved in the real world applied elements of space technology is invaluable. This launch is a huge leap forward for us as a nation because although the UK is a heavy hitter in the space industry building and design, before this, launches have had to be outsourced from the UK. “

 The Satellite Applications Catapult – one of a network of UK technology and innovation companies aiming to drive economic growth through commercialisation of research –  is delivering the mission for Horizon Technologies.

The satellite is one of six which make up the Catapult’s In-Orbit Demonstration (IOD) programme, which helps companies to launch a data service into space. It is responsible for overall delivery of the mission and specialises in making difficult things, like launching a new satellite into space, as easy as possible.

Historic first

Professor Malcolm Macdonald, the Director of the Applied Space Technology Laboratory at Strathclyde said: “We are proud to have been able to support another historic first, to continue our track-record of delivering innovation and value through collaboration, and to help put Glasgow at the heart of the global space sector.”

Glasgow-based Craft Prospect, a Strathclyde supported New Space start-up is also working on the launch to provide flight manuals and procedures for the mission. Managing Director Steve Greenland launched the company after completing research at Strathclyde.