SIUOxford: Inaugural Space Panel-Part 1- UK Space Agency

Author: Miguel A Ramirez Hernandez Edited by: Emil Fristed, Ruth Sang Jones

The pursuit of space is both the destination and  the journey; a journey of technology development and innovation that will attact creative minds, spark new ideas and build new skills while benefiting all aspects of society.

On 6th of March 2019 , the SIU team, in collaboration with the Oxford University Aeronautical Society, co-hosted The Inaugural Space Panel. This was the biggest event in SIU’s history. In a full auditorium, we had the opportunity to learn from three inspirational and highly influential individuals involved in the space industry. Each speaker addressed how space has inspired people to choose a career in science, and how this industry has enabled aerospace specific technologies to be adapted into real world solutions.

Part 1

UK Space Agency: A success story

“Space is still one of the things that children are most excited about” –Graham Turnock

The first speaker of our event was Dr Graham Turnock. Since March 2017, Dr Turnock has been serving as the CEO of the UK Space Agency, an Executive Agency of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) in the UK.

The UK Space Agency is in charge of all strategic decisions for the UK civil space program. This involves educating, promoting, funding, and executing ground-breaking discoveries and technical innovation within space science,

But, what are some specific things done by the agency?

The most recent UK space industry: size and health report listed some statistics illustrating the recent success of the UK Space program. The UK space industry has a total income of £14.8 billion, generating £5.7 billion of gross-value-added to the GDP of the UK. These numbers are also increasing annually, in fact at a rate faster than the growth rate of the UK economy. With a workforce of around 41,900 exceptionally skilled and productive employees, the UK Space Agency is one of the most productive government agencies.   

Historically, the UK Space Agency has been a provider of world-leading satellite industry services, dominated by satellite television. More recently, the agency has been shifting its focus to other industries and services including new rocket launch technology, as well as satellite services for mobile communication, and data processing for visual and positional observations.

Besides these direct services, the agency is supporting wider activities across the UK and as emphasized by Dr Turnock, “We help space companies start and grow across the whole of the UK”. As a government entity, the agency has a significant mission and responsibility. A large portion of the agency’s budget goes to funding UK space business incubators, accelerators and centres; this helps to create and grow businesses whilst creating jobs. In turn, new technologies are developed by highly skilled individuals, directly adding value to the UK economy.

For instance, the National Space Technology Program is a funding body created by the UK Space Agency to support the development of new space technologies. A project recently funded by this program, titled VESTA, consists of a 4 kg nanosatellite equipped with a low cost two-way VHF data exhange system. This was launched on December 3rd, 2018 using a Space X rocket. The data exchange payload aboard VESTA is especially applicable to maritime communications; this demonstration mission will show that ships at sea can benefit and depend on satellite communications to bring them traffic information, severe weather warnings, ice locations, as well as security alerts involving pirate activity. Overall, this will allow governments and institutions to provide safer, more efficient and cheaper shipping services.

Another fascinating project funded by the UK Space Agency is AQUAJET. Described as “the first water plasma thruster in Europe”, this project focuses on the development of an electric propulsion system for space travel. AQUAJET is a faster and more energy efficient propeller when compared to fuel-based propulsion. The technology consists of ionizing water vapour with particle accelerators, and then using a magnetic field to propel the vapour. This technology could one day be used for inter-planetary missions, whereby refuelling can take place in situ by using water at distant planets.

The third project showcased by Dr Turnock was the Synergistic Air-Breathing Rocket Engine (SABRE). The SABRE project involves the use of oxygen contained in air to fuel rocket engines. At this point, £60 million have been invested in its development. Although the science behind this technology was conceived over 50 years ago, the increase in frequency of space launches has incentivized a new wave of development to improve the technology’s safety and consistency. One of the major advancements in this project is the development and implementation of a heat exchanger that can cool incoming air at unprecedented rates. Advantages of this technology include improved efficiency in launch engines, lower fuel load, and horizontal take-off and landing.  Ultimately, “SABRE will enable low cost, reliable and reusable launchers with high cadence and payload return”.

Lastly, Dr Turnock shared another project funded by the National Space Technology Program-Multispectral Light Field Imaging. Based on an old technology developed in 1908, it allows 3D imaging by measuring direction and intensity of light. This technology has a myriad of applications in space. 3D vision will greatly benefit ROVER missions on the surface of Mars or the moon by mapping a three dimensional space. This work is in collaboration with Dynamic Imaging Analytics.

Dr Turnock ended his presentation by emphasizing that some of the technologies being developed are not necessarily new, but the opportunity to apply them has only just come to the forefront. Moreover, these technologies are not exclusive for space applications but can be used in as many industries as we can imagine. “Space is not just about technology but it is also about the inspiration that it can provide”, he added.

Indeed, Dr Turnock showed us that space provides the opportunity to discover and create, without constraints or limitations. With this idea in mind, we welcomed our second speaker, an individual that has successfully captured this ideology- Katerina Lengold….


Find a video recording of the full event here.

Read Part 2 and Part 3.

We also launched the first issue of the SIU Magazine at this event. Find out more here.