Posts Tagged ‘UK Space Agency’

‘I’: British Government Considering Solar Power Satellites

November 17, 2020

A bit more space technology news now. The weekend edition of the I, for Saturday 14th November 2020 carried a piece by Tom Bawden, ‘The final frontier for energy’ with the subtitle ‘Revealed: the UK is supporting a plan to create a giant solar power station in space’. The article ran

Millions of British homes could be powered by a giant solar power station 24,000 miles up in space within three decades, under proposals being considered by the government.

Under the plan, a system of five huge satellites – each more than a mile wide, covered in solar panels and weighing several thousand tons – would deliver laser beams of energy down to Earth.

These would provide up to 15 per cent of the country’s electricity supply by 2050, enough to power four million households – with the first space energy expected to be delivered by 2040. Each satellite would be made from tens of thousands of small modules, propelled into space through 200 separate rocket launches, and then assembled by robots.

The satellites would use thousands of mirrors to concentrate the sunlight on to the solar panels, which would be converted into high frequency radio waves. These would be beamed to a receiving antenna on the Earth, converted into electricity and delivered to our homes.

While the prospect of a solar space station beaming energy into our homes might seem outlandish, advocates are hopeful it can be done. The Government and the UK Space Agency are taking the technology extremely seriously, believing it could play a crucial role in helping the country to fulfil its promise of becoming carbon neutral – or net zero – by 2050, while keeping the lights on.

They have appointed the engineering consultancy Frazer-Nash to look into the technical and economic feasibility and it will report back next year.

“Solar space stations may sound like science fiction, but they could be a game-changing new source of energy for the UK and the rest of the world,” the science minister, Amanda Solloway, said.

“This pioneering study will help shine a light on the possibilities for a space-based solar power system which, if successful, could play an important role in reducing our emissions and meeting the UK’s ambitious climate-change targets,” she said.

Martin Soltau, of Frazer-Nash, who is leading the feasibility study, said: “This technology is really exciting and could be a real force for good. It has the potential to transform the energy market and make the net-zero target achievable – and from an engineering perspective it looks feasible.”

Previous analysis by other researchers on economic viability suggests space solar could be “competitive” with existing methods of electricity generation but that will need to be independently assessed, Mr Soltau said.

If the UK is to become net zero it needs to find a green source of energy that is totally dependable because the wind doesn’t always blow and the sun definitely doesn’t always shine.

This is where solar space comes in, with its panels sufficiently much closer to the sun that they are not blighted by clouds and darkness.

“This would provide a baseload of energy 24/7 and 365 days a year – and has a fuel supply for the next five billion years,” said Mr Soltau, referring to the predicted date of the sun’s eventual demise.

Until recently, this project really would have been a pipe dream – but two developments mean it is now a realistic prospect, Mr Soltau says.

The first is the new generation of reusable rockets, such as the Falcon 9 launcher from Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which mean satellites can be sent into space far more cheaply.

The cost of launching objects into low Earth orbit has gone from about $20,000 (£15,000) a kilogram in the early 2000s to less $3,000 now – and looks to fall below $1,000 in the coming years, he says.

At the same time, solar panels are much cheaper and more than three times as efficient as they were in the 1990s, meaning far fewer need to be sent into orbit to produce the same amount of energy.

Mr Soltau is hopeful, although by no means certain, that his study will find the technology to be feasible in economic and engineering terms – with the technology looking like it’s on track.

The five satellite solar power station system envisaged by the Government will probably cost more than £10bn – and potentially quite a lot more – more than the Hinkley Point C nuclear power station, which would produce roughly similar amounts of electricity, is expected to cost about £30bn, including decommissioning, Mr Soltau points out.

When all is said and done, there’s no getting away from the fact that building a satellite of that size and complexity in orbit is a mindboggling task. But it could well be feasible.

The article was accompanied by this diagram.

The captions read

  1. Solar reflectors: Orientation of satellite with respect to the Sun controlled to constantly reflect sunlight onto the solar power array below.
  2. Solar panels and transmitters: Approximately 60,000 layers of solar panels that collect the sunlight from the reflectors, and convert this to transmit high frequency radio waves.
  3. Power transmission: High frequency radio wave transmission from satellite to receiver on ground.
  4. Ground station: approximately 5k in diameter rectenna (a special type of receiving antenna that is used for converting electromagnetic energy into direct current (DC) electricity), generating 2 gigawatts of power enough for 2 million people at peak demand.

The solar reflectors are the objects which look rather like DVDs/CDs. The box at the top of the diagram gives the heights of a few other objects for comparison.

The ISS – 110m

The London Shard – 310m

The Burj Khalifa – 830m

The Cassiopeia solar satellite 1,700m.

The use of solar power satellites as a source of cheap, green energy was proposed decades ago, way back when I was at school in the 1970s. I first read about it in the Usborne Book of the Future. I don’t doubt that everything in the article is correct, and that the construction of such satellites would be comparable in price, or even possibly cheaper, than conventional terrestrial engineering projects. I went to a symposium on the popular commercialisation space at the headquarters of the British Interplanetary Society way back at the beginning of this century. One of the speakers was an engineer, who stated that the construction of space stations, including space hotels, was actually comparable in cost to building a tower block here on Earth. There was just a difference in attitude. Although comparable in cost, such space stations were viewed as prohibitively expensive compared to similar terrestrial structures.

Apart from the expense involved, the other problem solar power satellites have is the method of transmission. All the previous systems I’ve seen beamed the power back to Earth as microwaves, which means that there is a possible danger from cancer. The use of laser beams might be a way round that, but I still wonder what the health and environmental impact would be, especially if the receiving station is around 5 km long.

I also wonder if the project would ever be able to overcome the opposition of vested interests, such as the nuclear and fossil fuel industries. One of the reasons the Trump government has been so keen to repeal environmental legislation and put in place measures to prevent the Environmental Protection Agency from doing its job, is because the Republican party receives very generous funding from the oil industry, and particularly the Koch brothers. And there are plenty of Tory MPs who also possess links to big oil.

At the moment this looks like a piece of industry PR material. It’s an interesting idea, and I’ve no doubt that it’s factually correct, but given the resistance of the British establishment to new ideas, and especially those which might involve government expenditure, I have grave doubts about whether it will actually ever become a reality. Fossil fuels might be destroying the planet, but there are enough people on the right who don’t believe that’s happening and who get a very tidy profit from it, that I can see the oil industry being promoted against such projects for decades to come.

New ‘Space Hopper’ Device Allows Astronauts to Spend Less Time Exercising in Space

November 21, 2019

This is another story from yesterday’s I, this time about a new development in space research. At the moment astronauts have to spend over an hour a day exercising in order to combat the harmful effects of zero gravity. Without the pull of the Earth’s gravity, their muscles waste, including the heart. They also have to take care to try to prevent the loss of calcium from their bodies, which weakens their bones. But now inventor John Kennett has invented an exercise machine that allows them to do many of the exercises at once, thus cutting down drastically the amount of time they need trying to maintain a level of fitness. The article by Tom Bawden, ‘Astronauts jump at chance to use ‘space hopper’ to get fitter quicker’ runs

Keeping healthy in space is so vital that astronauts typically spend up to 90 minutes a day doing vigorous exercises.

But that could be about to change thanks to a new “jumping machine” that will gie them the same physical benefit in three or four minutes, according to its inventor.

Without effective exercise, astronauts’ fitness would quickly decline and their muscles and bones would lose strength.

At the moment, they spend much of their space-day running, cycling and doing strength training – on equipment that takes up a lot of valuable room and can take up to an hour to set up and dismantle.

According to the inventor John Kennett, his machine replaces the existing regime with a smaller, all-in-one device that boosts muscle and bone strength and provides cardiovascular exercise at the same time. it is 1.3 metres long and 20 centimetres thick when folded to be stowed.

The bed has a board that presses up against the bottom of the astronaut’s feet. This exerts a force that replicates the motion of jumping and is a highly effective form of exercise that can be varied to work different parts of the body.

“This piece of equipment has the potential to change the way astronauts travel through the solar system,” Mr Kennett said.

“The equipment they use at the moment is based on being in the gym – things like dead lifting or bench pressing. This is good but, when you jump, you do something incredible effective to the muscle and the tendons because you’re absorbing the landing force and then pushing away,” he added.

The device, known as the High Frequency Impulse for Microgravity, has been specially designed to eliminate vibrations and forces that would normally apply to exercise equipment but have the potential to damage spacecraft.

There’s also an additional snippet reporting that the UK space agency has given St Mary’s University in Twickenham a grant to conduct further research on Kennett’s invention after initial tests proved promising.

This is really interesting, and could be a great step forward. But I’ve heard rumours of breakthroughs in tackling the effects of Zero G on the human body before. About twenty or so years ago I went to see the British expert on space medicine, Dr. Kevin Fong, talk about the some of the problems space causes on astronauts’ physical and mental health. He believed that these problems were near to being solved through a device, a vibrating plate, that astronauts would stand on. I haven’t heard anything about this since, so I presume it didn’t work. But the inclusion of a fixed plate for the bottom of the astronaut’s feet in this decision also suggests that the previous invention made have played a role in the development of this device. And if this does prove effective in combating zero G, it will be a great help in allowing humans to cope better with the long interplanetary voyages necessary to open up and hopefully colonise the solar system.

Britain Aims for Communications Contract for Moon Space Station

July 14, 2019

Yesterday’s I, for Saturday 13th July 2019, also carried from encouraging space news in an article page 13, ‘UK seeks to play key mission role’ by Jamie Harris. This reported that Britain is trying to get the communications contract for a space station around the Moon. The article ran

Britain hopes to provide essential communication between the Moon and scientists back on Earth as multinational plans to build a new space station get under way.

The UK Space Agency is bidding for a slice of key activity on the proposed Lunar Orbital Platform – Gateway, which is intended to serve as laboratory and short-term accommodation post for astronauts.

In November, the next round of funding decisions will be determined by the European Space Agency, of which Britain is a member.

Guildford-based SSTL is bidding to be technology provider for communications, allowing astronauts and rovers on the Moon to send data.

Sue Horne, the head of space exploration at the UK Space Agency, said: “We’d like to do the communications system and the refuelling element. On the refuelling, it is probably fifty-fifty. We have a much better chance of getting the communications.”

News that the space authorities are considering building a lunar space station were revealed last week by the head of Human Resources for the British Space Agency in Swindon on The One Show. The show was doing an item on women in space, presented by Carol Vorderman. It was part of the season of features celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the moon landings. The programme discussed women’s contribution to the American space programme. It was a female engineer, who devised the rocket fuel that allowed the Americans to launch their first space probe, Explorer 1, successfully. It was a female nutritionist, who came up with the idea that astronauts should eat good, nutrious, tasty and varied meals. That’s obviously important, because for people working in isolated, dangerous environments, like the poles, meal times can become the highlight of the day and they’re important in keeping up morale. The programme also mentioned that the number of female employees at NASA has grown from a handful when it began, to 40 per cent now.

The HR head added that the British space programme was set to expand, and stated that there were plans to build a lunar space station. Which is why the British equivalent of NASA, based in Swindon, was expanding. And they were looking for all kinds of people, not just scientists and engineers.

So, with luck, there could be some fascinating and inspiring careers in space research for some people! 

The item did not, however, mention some other instances where women, including those from ethnic minorities, were involved in the American space programme. Like the ladies, who trained as Mercury astronauts before the Agency decided that they weren’t going to send women into space, or the group of Black female mathematicians, who did the calculations for the Moon landings. These ladies must have been absolutely brilliant, because the maths behind space travel can be terrifyingly hard. Let’s face it: it is rocket science! But I guess these pieces were left out as there have already been a number of books and features about them already. There has even been a female about the Black lady mathematicians.

I’m extremely encouraged by the news that humanity is planning to return to the Moon, fifty years after Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and co. set foot, and I really hope that this time Britain will be there also in some capacity.

‘I’ Newspaper: Scots Spaceport Company Has Rocket Ready for Launch in 2021

February 8, 2019

Excellent space news, if today’s I for 8th February 2019 is to be believed. According to the paper, Orbex, the company that’s building a spaceport to launch satellites in the Scottish highlands, has a rocket and intend making its first launch in 2021. The article by Lucinda Cameron, entitled ‘Rocket Revealed for Scottish Spaceport’ on page 13, runs

A spaceflight company has unveiled a new rocket as it opened its headquarters and rocket design facility in the Highlands.

Orbex, which is involved in plans to create a spaceport in Sutherland, said its new base in Forres, Moray, will create more than 130 jobs.

At the opening yesterday the company unveiled its Prime rocket, which is designed to deliver small satellites into Earth’s orbit.

Made from a specially formulated lightweight carbon fibre and aluminium composite, it includes what the company said is the world’s largest 3D printed rocket engine.

It is designed to work with biopropane, a clean-burning, renewable fuel source that cuts carbon emissions.

The Prime rocket will make its maiden flight from Scotland in 2021, when it will carry an experimental payload from UK-based Surrey Satellite Technology Lt, which manufactures small satellites.

Graham Turnock, chief executive of the UK Space Agency, said the new rocket design facility “firmly positions the UK as Europe’s frontrunner for those looking to Earth’s orbit and beyond for new opportunities.”

If all goes ahead as planned, then this is brilliant! Brilliant! As we used to say when I was at school. Britain developed a number of superb space rockets over the years, including the sounding rocket Skua used in high atmosphere research. The first and last time this country launched a satellite into orbit using a domestically developed rocket, it was way back in 1973 with Black Arrow. This was launched from Woomera in Australia, and carried the satellite, Prospero. After that, the politicians and civil servants decided that producing and developing rockets for space research was too expensive, and cancelled the programme. It was decided that instead we’d use American rockets. Which put us at a disadvantage, as it meant that we were dependent on the Americans and whether they had space available in their launch vehicles. Meanwhile, the French pressed ahead with their rocket development programme, and produced the superb Ariane, which is the launcher used by ESA, the European Space Agency, from its launch site in Kourou in South America.

After 46 years, Britain could once again be sending home-produced spacecraft back into the High Frontier.

Historic British Space Rocket Rescued to Go on Display in Scotland

January 22, 2019

Yesterday’s I for Monday, 21st January 2019, carried a very interesting bit of news for fans of the British space programme. The article, ‘UK rocket to go on show 50 years after Australian crash landing’ by Conor Riordan, reported that the Black Arrow satellite launcher has been retrieved from the Ozzie outback, and is due come back to Britain to be put on show in Penicuik in Scotland. The article ran

The UK’s only rocket to successfully blast a satellite into orbit is to go on show nearly 50 years after its crash landing in the South Australian outback.

Black Arrow, which lifted off on 28 October 1971 from a launch site 280 miles north-west of Adelaide, has been returned home after decades of exposure to vandalism and the elements. It has been transported by Skryrora, a space technology firm, and will be unveiled in Penicuik, Midlothian, later this month.

The Prospero satellite that Black Arrow propelled into orbit, was sent up to study the effects of space environment on satellites.

Daniel Smith, director at Skyrora, said: “This is quite feasibly the most important artefact linked to the UK’s space history.
“While our engineers have been working on our own launches, our Stem ambassadors have been arranging all of this in the background.

“We’ll be unveiling it in Penicuik later this month, not far from our headquarters and workshop in Edinburgh. With the UK Government aiming to make us a launch nation again, it seemed like the perfect time to bring Black Arrow back. We really hope the rocket will help to inspire current and future generations of scientists and engineers.”

The UK Space Agency has previously announced 2.5m pounds of funding for a proposed vertical launch spaceport in Sutherland.

Developed and tested on the Isle of Wight, the Black Arrow programme completed four rockets between 1969 and 1971. The third flight was the first and only successful UK-led orbital launch, but the programme was then cancelled. This is said to have given the rocket cult status.

Skyrora has also commissioned a plaque to be placed where Black Arrow had lain.

Dr Graham Turnock, chief executive of the UK Space Agency, said: “Black Arrow is testament to Britain’s longstanding heritage in the space sector which continues to thrive today.” (p. 13).

The video below is a short video of just under two minutes from James Bignell’s YouTube channel showing a montage of all the Black Arrow launches.

It’s great that Britain is finally going to launch rockets again after nearly half a century, and that this superb piece of British space engineering is coming back to Blighty to inspire a new generation of space cadets.