Could UCL-MSSL space science experiments be advantageously launched into space from the UK?
By Robin H. Brand, on 21 July 2020
On 25th June 2020 I presented a webinar about the Skylark sounding rocket, as part of UCL’s “One O’clock Space Lecture” series. This described the origins, the 48-year service life from 1957 to 2005, and some of the hundreds of then state-of-the-art space science and astronomy experiments carried out using the British Skylark rocket. (Video Presentation & Slides)
However, in this blog, I would like to focus on the wider benefits of the Skylark programme, and bearing in mind the current resurgence of Space activity within the UK, initiate a discussion on the possibility of a modern-day replacement for the experience Skylark provided.
Skylark missions had three main purposes, the fulfilment of which would depend on the actual payload flown and number of experiments on board. These were:
- experiments complete in themselves – for example pioneering astronomy observations
- equipment testing – to try an experimental technique or to test new hardware before use on a more expensive satellite or the space shuttle
- training for those involved
This later aspect may seem less obvious, but even at the time, and even more so later on, its great importance was recognised. For instance, to quote from page 601 of my book on the Skylark sounding rocket (www.skylark.space ):
It provided a unique training ground for scientists, engineers and technicians from the mid-1950s to the 1970s. A PhD student could design an experiment, help build it, fly to Australia, help unpack and re-assemble it, be involved in the excitement of the launch and hopefully have good scientific results at the end. It was viewed as an exceptional way of developing a scientific career, and many such students who were in the right place at the right time have risen to leading positions in their fields.
“The nostalgia felt by those who experience[d] a Skylark PhD is fuelled by the current lack of any replacement for the horribly realistic management training it provided.” (This last from Mike Cruise)
A few examples of those who “trained” on Skylark would include John Zarnecki (Emeritus Professor, Principal Investigator on many spacecraft including the Huygens probe/lander on Titan, Chris Rapley, who became director of the Science Museum in London, and indeed Professor Alan Smith of UCL MSSL.
On the wider stage, after Skylark was no longer directly funded by the UK, it had an even longer use within Europe, and a 2003 German report concluded:
“…that sounding rockets were recognised as an essential tool for many experiments in space, as a complementary tool to ground-based and satellite investigations and as an educational and training tool for students and young scientists. Hence, sounding rockets remained an important part of the German microgravity programme.” (Page 589 of my book).
However, these days, European sounding rocket launches are limited to perhaps one or two a year from Esrange in Sweden, and it seems that only NASA with its resources can still afford a busy sounding rocket programme.
However, although sounding rockets have their advantages, it can be argued that NASA’s CubeSat Launch initiative (CSLI), provides a better model. This scheme provides free launches to orbit for American educational institutions via the ELaNa programme (Educational Launch of Nanosatellites) (https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/smallsats/elana/index.html ).
How might the equivalent work in the UK? The author is Project Leader for the SLV (Small Launch Vehicle) Project, which has been working for a number of years on providing access to space from the UK using our own hardware. (https://www.bis-space.com/what-we-do/projects/the-slv-small-launch-vehicle-project .) Our current economic model for the SLV is based on a summer season of six launches from our preferred launch site of Unst, the northernmost of the Shetland Islands in the very north of Scotland. (https://shetlandspacecentre.com/ .) The SLV has a nominal payload of 150 kg, which it would place into a polar or Sun Synchronous Orbit (SSO) at a typical altitude of 500km.
The launch vehicle payload module is optimised to launch several satellites at the same time, for instance one configuration could be a dozen 3U CubeSats and four larger 16U microsats. Thus, the vehicle could act as a modern “Skylark” replacement, and by utilising only part of its capacity, could launch into orbit several space science related satellites each year.
On the Skylark sounding rocket, the vehicle payload telemetry system was used to return experimental data to Earth. In order to do the same from an orbiting satellite, it is envisaged that a standard CubeSat “bus” would be used to host the experiments. This would provide power supplies, pre-approved telemetry capability etc., via a standard interface, so that the experiment could focus on its primary purpose. Academic institutions such as UCL MSSL could book launch slots in advance, which could then be allocated to experiments and students as required.
The aim would be to provide the same scientific, testing and training experience as Skylark did, but in a modern setting. An experiment could be devised, approved and built by a student. They would be involved in the final testing and integration in the UK (as for instance used to be done by BAC at Filton in Bristol), and (for better or worse!) have no need to travel to Australia or even Spain, but if they wished, they could simply drive to the launch site in Unst (Shetland’s oil-based economy has resulted in excellent road, ferry and telecommunications links) and see their satellite launched, and/or simply monitor their orbiting experiment from the lab as required.
Funding – for the first 22 years of its life, the Skylark programme was funded by the government as part of the UK’s National Space Programme; on the basis of 50% for the rockets, and 50% for the experiments. This arrangement was initiated by Professor Harrie Massey of UCL in conjunction with the Royal Society. However, the modern equivalent would be on a simpler basis, with the launch vehicle already a going concern. The cost to orbit would be of the order of £40,000 per kg, so a typical 3U CubeSat of maximum mass 4.0 kg would cost some £160,000 to have launched in this way. Hence it is not anticipated that academic institutions could afford the launch as well as the construction of such a CubeSat, so a funding programme would have to be devised, perhaps in association with ESA or the UKSA.
Is this idea naïve? Is it already being done? Does it correspond to modern academic needs? Could such orbiting experiments do genuine research resulting in PhD qualifications, or would they be mainly for training and experience? And it must be emphasised that, although it has been under study since 2016, at the moment our proposed launch vehicle is only at the advanced design study stage, and is not yet funded or developed. Hence the earliest when commercial launches could take place using it would be in 2027. However, this gives time for arrangements to be made, and a funding programme to be devised, and even the Skylark programme took a decade or so to mature into its final three-stage version, which reached altitudes of over 700 km.
So, is there any mileage in the idea of a Skylark sounding rocket programme replacement? I’d be most interested to hear from anyone on the matter. Please do email me at email@example.com.
Although an electronic engineer by profession, Robin Brand (BSc CEng MIET FBIS) has always been interested in space matters, having graduated from the ‘Eagle’ comic and ‘Dan Dare’ (in colour) via ‘The Sky at Night’ on television (in black and white) to membership of the British Interplanetary Society (in 3D!).
His early interest was enhanced when science fiction started coming true with the advent of the first orbiting Earth satellites. Those were the days of great public interest, when the times the satellites could be seen passing overhead were published in the daily newspapers, and their data transmissions could be heard on the radio.
Many years later, after his three grown-up children had left home, he was able to find the time to carry out the archival research on which the original book and the webinar and were based. He was amazed to find that writing the book took over from his day job, as instead of lasting the anticipated six months, it took more than six years of research and writing! However, in 2014 it was finally published, and in 2015 the was short-listed for a ‘Sir Arthur Clarke’ award for space activity in the media category.
He lives on the edge of the New Forest in Hampshire, UK.
The OneWeb Crash, first space victim of Covid-19 by Prof Serge Plattard, Deputy Director of the UCL Space Domain
By sergeplattard, on 30 April 2020
On March 27, the global space-based communication company OneWeb filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, with the intention of pursuing the sale of the company. This decision was triggered by the sudden withdrawal of one of its main investors, the Japanese SoftBank- already holding 35 % of OneWeb assets-, unable to abound additional money to fully fund the company through its deployment and commercial launch. OneWeb’s press release said that “While the Company was close to obtaining financing, the process did not progress because of the financial impact and market turbulence related to the spread of COVID-19.” It said also that before filing for bankruptcy, 85% of its 531 employees were laid-off.
OneWeb, created in 2015, is headquartered in the UK and is chaired by its charismatic founder Greg Wyler with subsidiaries in the United States, Singapore, and the UAE. The company aims to bring Internet access for everyone, everywhere, via a constellation of 650 low Earth orbit (1200 km) satellites with a network of global gateway stations and a range of user terminals in order to provide an affordable, fast, high-bandwidth and low-latency communications service for businesses and governments around the world. Initial services were planned to start in 2021.
To date, 74 satellites have been launched by Arianespace (last batch launched on March 21, 2020), while half of the 44 ground stations are completed or in development. The system has performed successful demonstrations with broadband speeds in excess of 400 Mbps and latency of 32 ms.
It is also worth mentioning that the OneWeb-Airbus joint venture has built and owns a satellite manufacture in Florida with a delivering capacity of the constellation’s microsats of 14/week for a couple of hundred thousand dollars each.
Considering such a major blow to the “New Space” world, some defeatists will say that this is the beginning of a series of innovative space enterprises going bust, underlining the fragility of their business plans, while others will observe that it was just a clap of thunder in the serene sky of New Space, hence highlighting two severe difficulties faced by OneWeb and exacerbated by the Covid-19 crisis. No more than that. These can be summarized as follows:
First, the business model was indeed difficult to set up as it relied primarily on SoftBank, and on other contributors such as Qualcomm, Hughes Network, Intelsat, Coca-Cola, Deutsche Bank and Airbus. This was not an easy task since the business case for this new kind of comsat constellations is not yet proven. Indeed in 2012, Greg Wyler himself went through a bitter experience when creating O3b (Other3 billion) destined to provide connectivity to the 3 billion off-networked people that would access to communications through a constellation of 20 medium Earth orbit satellites. Eventually this endeavour was salvaged in 2016 by SES (a European world leading geosynchronous orbit satcom operator) as it bought 03b and redirected its purpose to B2B connection needs. Quite the opposite of its intended initial purpose to say the least… However, since today’s technology and demand are quite different from those of the late 90s’- remember the astounding failures of Bill Gates’s Teledesic and Alcatel’s Skybridge constellations, it was worth introducing a new type of constellations using light, cheap and fast to manufacture satellites. These constellations looked so attractive that major satcom operators felt destabilised for a while, having to face such a disruptive model that may threaten the well-established geostationary telecom market. Yet, OneWeb achilleas heel remained: having already secured 3.5 billion dollars from investors, it needed twice this amount to complete the final financial round. The Covid-19 related level of featured financial uncertainties eventually discouraged the financiers to step up their commitments.
Second, this fragility was stressed by incoming competitors, the most serious of them being SpaceX with its project Starlink – consisting of populating orbits with thousands of satellites starting with 12 000 and possibly extending up to 42 000 connecting the whole world through ultra-fast broadband telecommunications, internet of things, etc- delivered at about the same price as a standard monthly internet subscription. Early 2019, the first batch of 60 satellites was launched. Today 417 operational satellites are on 550 km circular orbits and 1000 should be deployed by the end of the year. As for OneWeb, the business case underpinning such massive constellation still needs to demonstrate its profitability to attract new investors. To that end, indisputably Elon Musk’s holds a few trump cards, having its own launching means with the reliable Falcon 9 rockets family, benefiting of his company (SpaceX) portfolio of activities comprising large US civilian and defence public orders: a comfortable cushion allowing him to invest in risky technologies and innovative systems. Additionally, the successful launches of the constellation batches (April 22 was the last one with 60 satellites) have certainly built up confidence among investors witnessing the pace at which the system is deployed, notwithstanding the still long way to go. Moreover, SpaceX CEO Gwynne Shotwell, a predestined name in the launching business, opened hostilities in October 2019 at a popular investors’ meeting when declaring that Starlink, once fully operational, would be “17 times more efficient per bit “ (…) ”(OneWeb) deceives people who will face mid-term disappointment”. For its part, Elon Musk on March 9 showed how determined was his company: “Guess how many constellations projects didn’t go bust? Zero (…) we just don’t want to fall into that category”.
Under such pressures it was difficult for this British company to survive the shock following SoftBank’s withdrawal, its largest backer, highlighting the dependency, hence vulnerability, on just a few critical investors.
OneWeb’s bankruptcy announcement indicated that it intends to use the court proceedings to pursue a sale of its business in order to maximize the value of the company. Who may be the buyers?
Is SpaceX interested? Probably not, because it is pursing the development of its own system, convinced that better services/dollar than OneWeb can be delivered. The fall of OneWeb is taken by SpaceX as a major stone block removed from its path to success and domination of the info world.
How about Jeff Bezos’- Amazon’s CEO-? Amazon requested authorization to launch 3236 low Earth orbit satellites for its Kuiper project “a new initiative to launch a constellation of low Earth orbit satellites that will provide low-latency, high-speed broadband connectivity to unserved and underserved communities around the world”. A move from Amazon to benefit from OneWeb‘s technology and knowhow, in particular fast production lines, could reduce costs and time to market for the millions of beneficiaries of such new services.
Last but not least, Airbus? The European air and space giant might want to gain a foothold on the information market served by space means, requesting possible financial boost from the EU giving more visibility to European technologies, namely in space, adding to the already existing Galileo and Copernicus systems. No wonder that Thierry Breton, the new European Commissioner for internal market, in charge of space too, will look into that, notwithstanding it would take a strategic agreement of the 27 member states to go ahead…
The future of OneWeb remains definitely open for buyers. Through this blog we plan to keep you regularly posted as things unwind.
Updated UK Government Response 26 June 2020
Update: OneWeb on the recovery, ready to conquer broadband satellite services again
Prof Serge Plattard, Deputy Director, Space Domain, UCL
On July 11, the bankruptcy judge validated the takeover of OneWeb by the BidCo 100 Limited consortium made up of the British government (Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy-BEIS)) and the Indian telecommunications company Bharti Global Limited for an amount of $ 1 billion. The ruling concluded OneWeb’s bankruptcy proceedings, which had been under Chapter 11 of US bankruptcy law since last March. In this way, OneWeb can once again conquer the global broadband satellite service provision market, competing with SpaceX’s Starlink and Amazon’s Kuiper constellations. To date, OneWeb has deployed 74 of the 720 satellites in its Ku / Ka band constellation in low Earth orbit (1200 km).
End of August, the company received approval from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for the deployment of 1280 additional V-band satellites at an altitude of 8500 km, as well as the carriage of V-band payloads on the 720 satellites of the first constellation. The FCC believes that this new infrastructure will increase the services offered as well as competition in the sector and lower the costs of access.
This decision follows a request from OneWeb filed last May with the FCC to launch 48 000 additional satellites. According to FCC licensing criteria, OneWeb will have to deploy half of this mega constellation by the end of August 2026 and the remaining by the end of August 2029.
For the record, SpaceX has already launched more than 700 Starlink satellites and has started Beta tests with very good performance. For its part, Amazon received approval in July from the FCC for the deployment of 3236 satellites of its Kuiper constellation into low Earth orbit for the provision of broadband services. The mega constellation race seems now well underway indeed!
Sources: Parabolic Arc, August 27, 2020, and the September Space Newsletter of the French Embassy in Washington DC.
Prof Serge Plattard
Prior to Prof. Serge Plattard’s current position as Deputy Director of the UCL Space Domain, Serge was Senior Resident Fellow at ESPI since 2012, a European space policy think tank he started and ran in 2004, working on space governance, exploration policies, and space security. From 1998-2003, he was CNES’s director for international relations. A nuclear physicist for 12 years, he then turned to science & technology diplomacy, first at the French Ministry of External relations in 1981, and later as science & technology counsellor with French Embassies in India, Japan, US and UK. He lectured in nuclear physics at Université d’Orsay, and in R&D innovation and technology economy at Université Paris-Dauphine, and the French Business School ESSEC. He also lectures at UCL and at the International Space University in Strasbourg. He is a life member of the American Physical Society, founding member of Euroscience and member of the International Academy of Astronautics. Serge is a Knight in the order of the Légion d’Honneur, and holds the Golden Rays in the order of the Sacred Treasure (Japan).
Prof Serge Plattard, Deputy Director of the UCL Space Domain, is currently involved in several activities with the International Astronautical Federation (IAF). He has been appointed on March 22, 2020 as the Secretary of the IAF Working Group on Space Traffic Management (STM). This working group, together with two others steered respectively by the International Academy of Astronautics (IAA), and the International Institute of Space Law (IISL) will present a White Paper on STM at the annual International Astronautical Congress to be held in Paris in October 2021. This White Paper will serve as a new platform to help contributing to a consensual approach on the major challenge of defining and applying common guidelines and/or regulatory processes to ensure a stable, secure, safe and sustainable space traffic.
Ideas and suggestions for input to this IAF Working group are most welcome and can be sent directly to Prof Serge Plattard until September 30, 2020.
Within IAF, Serge also holds two other positions as:
Chair of the Technical Committee on Space Security comprising over 50 members belonging to government departments, space agencies, industry, research and academic institutions;
Co-Chair of the newly created Symposium on Space Security that will hold its first session during the International Astronautical Congress in October 2020 taking place in Dubai. This symposium has received 47 contributions, feeding its two sessions,:
1. Policy, Legal, Institutional and Economic Aspects of Space Debris Detection Mitigation and Removal;
2. Cyber-security threats to space missions and countermeasures to address them, respectively. It is anticipated that in 2021, two other sessions will be added to this symposium.
Find out more about Serge Plattard on:
UCL Space Domain Blog
By Charlene A Murphy, on 17 April 2020
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