TSB initiative looks to encourage component manufacturers into space sector

TSB initiative looks to encourage component manufacturers into space sector
The space sector has long been a trying environment for the engineer. It is one of the harshest environments known to man and getting systems and components to reliably operate there continually pushes the envelope of technology.

Engineering for space flight has brought about many technical innovations and its continual operation has become part of mainstream, daily functionality. GPS, weather predictions, Google Earth, telecommunications; commercial space operations are now touching everyone.

The UK seems to be adept at designing and producing these space bound assets, and as a result the Technology Strategy Board (TSB) is to establish a Catapult Centre, a technology and innovation hub, to help develop satellite based products and services.

Tim Just, lead technologist of space and satellite navigation at the TSB, says: "What else can we do with the next generation of sensors and what does the user require that doesn't already exist? If you think about a cheap space mission costing from $20 to $100million, trying an idea out requires a pretty hardcore entrepreneur to put that sort of money up."

This has led to the Catapult Centre initiative being set up. Historically the driver for the space sector has come from what is available. Companies that already operate in space think about what they can do for other sectors, and then come up with proposals to sell. What the Catapult Centre is aiming to do is turn that round and ask those people what they need.

"The insurance sector might need rapid revisit images," says Just. "For example, when an area is flooded they can quickly identify the damage in a couple of hours; the actual resolution is less important. You then work out that you might need five satellites so need to build a satellite at 20% of the normal cost. This initiative is looking to help companies demonstrate that kind of application driven technology and show it can be done cost effectively and quickly. Although it might not be a commercial service, if it was only flown on one satellite, it provides a technical demonstration for the application."

The Catapult Centre is being tied in with another programme being run by the TSB, the TechdemoSAT1. This provides a platform for interested parties to fly hardware such as a sensor, a novel material, or mechanical component that can't consider it normally due to the high cost involved in space missions.

A separate issue is the need for flight heritage to get anyone to buy and have confidence in a product sold to the space sector. But this creates a chicken-and-egg situation as it needs to be flown first. The TSB hopes that this programme will help break down that barrier and allow firms to fly whatever sensors, instruments or components they want on low-cost, three-year missions.

The initiative is less about developing new technologies and finding commercial spin outs, but rather about 'spin along'. The hope is that firms that have technology with potential untapped commercial value for operations in space, but are not doing so due to the engineering and financial difficulties, can come into the programme and change that. So in essence, it is as much about introducing existing technology in to space to open up new applications, as it is about developing engineers.

"We not only put components into a ridiculous environment in terms of temperature changes and radiation levels, but are also expecting them to work unattended for up to 20 years," says Just. "So if you end up with all sectors supplying in to the space sector then you are using new techniques and producing to a very high standard. You might only sell one or two to the space sector and obviously there is a price attached to that, but the technologies developed and expertise gained to meet those standards can then be spun along in to other domains."

Justin Cunningham

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