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Space sustainability conference advances £1.8m for tech innovation

New funding from the UK Space Agency is backing technologies to help satellites measure our changing shorelines, estimate levels of biomass, predict weather forecasting and manufacture medicines in space.

Image courtesy UK Space Agency

The £1.8 million injection, divided across nine individual projects, rounds off the final phase of the agency’s Enabling Technologies Programme (ETP), designed to give a boost to British organisations with promising technologies to support the delivery of new space capabilities.

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The funding is being announced on the opening day of the UK’s first In-Orbit Servicing and Manufacturing (IOSM) conference on the Harwell Science Campus.

IOSM is a crucial emerging technology that supports space sustainability by enabling spacecraft to be repaired and adjusted during flight. It also opens new possibilities for building products that we need on Earth, such as semiconductors, much more efficiently in the microgravity environment.   

Andrew Griffith MP, Minister for Space at the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology, said: “From more accurate weather forecasts to manufacturing medicines on a bigger scale, ambitious UK space teams from Strathclyde to Surrey are developing pioneering solutions in space to enhance our life on earth.

“This £1.8m government fund will grow our economy through new innovation while helping to keep space sustainable and deliver more key discoveries for many years to come.”

The IOSM conference is an opportunity for the UK sector to showcase initiatives that are making space activity more sustainable. The UK Space Agency will launch a new package of IOSM initiatives, including a funding call for the next phase of the UK’s national Active Debris Removal (ADR) mission, to derisk technologies developed in two mission studies led by Astroscale and ClearSpace.  

The UK Space Agency is also backing new research studies on the size and health of the IOSM market and the UK’s current capabilities, and has awarded the University of Southampton a project to assess the potential impact of satellites burning up in Earth’s atmosphere, known as ablation. This follows the recent announcement of a £2 million upgrade to the Satellite Applications Catapult’s IOSM facility in Westcott, to support British companies with testing and demonstration of new innovations.   

Enabling Technologies Programme (ETP)
The ETP projects announced today include work by the University of Derby to develop a material bonding method for use in the space environment, which could help assemble large space structures in orbit and one by Messium to enhance algorithms and imagery required to estimate quantities of above ground organic matter, with a particular focus on wheat.

Another by the University of Northumbria in Newcastle will develop a personalised tourniquet system for astronaut blood flow exercises, while Frontier Space Technologies will take the next step in creating its SpaceLab, a miniature 'lab in a box' capable of manufacturing high-value pharmaceuticals and science materials.

Dr Paul Bate, Chief Executive of the UK Space Agency, said: “From using satellite observations to gain a clearer picture of the way our planet is changing, to using the in-orbit environment itself to develop vital tech products more efficiently, space is central to how we can plan for a safer and more sustainable future on Earth.

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“For almost two years, our Enabling Technologies Programme has been empowering scientists and engineers in universities, companies and research institutes to advance the technologies of tomorrow, demonstrating the UK Space Agency’s commitment to harnessing the power of space to improve life for everybody.”

Launched in September 2022 in partnership with the UKRI Science and Technology Facilities Council, the £8.6 million programme has already supported 41 emerging and disruptive technologies that will drive growth in the UK space sector.  

The Enabling Technologies Programme has now been incorporated into the National Space Innovation Programme (NSIP) and will be delivered as NSIP Kick Starter.  

The projects:

ARGANS (£250,000) – Global shorelines capability
An Earth observation satellite applications project, aiming to map global coastline trends, especially for regions of the world with limited geospatial information, enabling generation of accurate shorelines. Potential uses include climate change monitoring and coastal management planning.   

University of Derby (£150,000) – ASTRIA computational study for manufacturing, assembly and materials
Application and development of a material bonding method (transient liquid phase diffusion bonding) in a space environment, which can be applied to concepts such as assembly of large space structures or vehicle re-entry.    

Messium (£120,000) – Wheat biomass estimator

An Earth observation satellite applications project using research driven algorithms and hyperspectral imagery to estimate above ground biomass in a remote, cost-effective and scalable way.     

Ultima Forma Ltd (£120,000) – Electroformed modular Q-band waveguide assemblies 

In collaboration with Airbus Defence and Space, developing modular waveguides in Q&V-band by electroforming. Waveguides are key technologies in communications, directing energy in a particular direction. Electroforming involves “growing” metal via electrolytic transfer of ions, potentially delivering a cost-effective manufacture and development technique.

ICL (£250,000) – Space applications of nitrogen vacancy-in-diamond magnetometer
In partnership with University of Warwick, development of magnetometers using nitrogen vacancy centre in diamond, potentially offering a competitive alternative to traditional fluxgate sensors. Magnetometers are devices used to measure the magnetic field, with applications ranging from planetary science missions to weather forecasting here on Earth.

Surrey Space Centre, University of Surrey (£250,000) – Enabling ultra-low orbits: air breathing electric propulsion spacecraft
Development of a spacecraft platform capable of flying in extremely low altitude orbits, advancing the air breathing electric propulsion concept through propulsion testing, orbital mechanics simulation and aerodynamic analysis for use in Earth observation, telecommunications, and climate monitoring.   

University of Northumbria at Newcastle (£140,000) – Personalised tourniquet system for spaceflight technology
Development of a personalised tourniquet system for spaceflight, a critical enabling technology for human spaceflight in low Earth orbit and beyond to perform a blood flow restriction exercise countermeasure in space.   

University of Strathclyde (£250,000) – Tuneable radiation-resilient (AlGa)2O3 UVC photodetectors

Development and demonstration of suitability for space of a new type of semiconductor, providing an alternative to current Silicon-based UVC photodetectors.   

Frontier Space Technologies Ltd (£250,000) - Fluidic, electrical connectivity, and biocompatibility upgrade studies for the SpaceLab microgravity laboratory

Development of the fluid transfer and biological material property testing of SpaceLab, a miniaturised, autonomous lab-in-a-box designed for in-orbit manufacturing of high-value products. Applications include pharmaceuticals, biosciences and material science.

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