UK joins space race with shoebox-sized Cubesat satellites

Prometheus-2 mission will be launched from Newquay Airport in Cornwall this summer

The satellites will be launched into space from Spaceport Cornwall in Newquay. Getty Images

Two shoebox-sized satellites will be launched into space from Spaceport Cornwall in Newquay this summer, as the UK takes its first steps into the space race.

As part of the Prometheus-2 defence mission, two Cubesats will provide a test platform for monitoring radio signals, including GPS and sophisticated imaging, paving the way for a more collaborative and connected space communication system with allies, according to a ministry of defence statement. The technology on board will enable the ministry to identify new techniques and algorithms for operating satellites and data processing, it said.

The Cubesats will be carried on Virgin Orbit’s Launcher One rocket, which takes off horizontally from a modified Boeing 747 jet, named Cosmic Girl. They will operate in low Earth orbit, about 550 kilometres above the Earth and 50km to 100km apart at 27,358kph. Virgin Orbit is backed by Abu Dhabi's Mubadala Investment Company.

The first satellite includes a hyperspectral imager, a laser detector and a GPS receiver. The hyperspectral imager will capture several slivers of pictures over different wavelengths of light for higher definition images. The GPS receiver confirms the precise time and position of the satellite over the area of the Earth to be photographed.

Cubesat 2 includes two optical imaging cameras, a laser range finder, and a GPS receiver. One camera will be fitted with a wide-angle lens for a 180-degree view of Earth’s surface with the second camera observing the other Cubesat 1 to support space situational awareness and enable scientists to understand what else orbits the Earth.

Built by In-Space Missions Ltd, based in Hampshire, and designed with Airbus Defence and Space, Prometheus-2 is a collaboration between the UK Ministry of Defence and international partners, including the US National Reconnaissance Office.

Defence Procurement Minister Jeremy Quin said the launch of Prometheus-2 represents "another important step forward for our homegrown space programme".

Two Cubesats will provide a test platform for monitoring radio signals, including GPS and sophisticated imaging, paving the way for a more collaborative and connected space communication system with allies. Photo: MOD

Deputy chief executive at the UK Space Agency, Ian Annett, said: "These satellites showcase the UK’s strengths in designing and building satellites. Being able to launch from the UK and across Europe for the first time will boost our satellite industry further, create high-skilled jobs across the country and deliver a key ambition of the National Space Strategy.

The Cubesats will each have separate equipment on board to test novel concepts, such as a pathfinder in support of the Minerva constellation for future space-based intelligence and surveillance.

Scotland's microlauncher

Scotland, meanwhile, will be the launchpad for Europe’s very first microlauncher rocket.

Lifting off from Space Hub Sutherland, in the Highlands, the Prime orbital space rocket was unveiled by Orbex, a spaceflight company.

The company will now press ahead with testing, allowing “dress rehearsals” of rocket launches and the development of launch procedures.

Orbex recently revealed the first test launch platform in Kinloss, a few miles from the company’s headquarters at Forres, Moray.

The rocket is 19 metres long, powered by seven engines and is in two stages. It is being manufactured in the UK and Denmark.

The six engines on the first stage of the rocket will propel the vehicle through the atmosphere to an altitude of about 80km.

The single engine on the second stage of the rocket will complete the journey to low earth orbit, allowing the release of small commercial satellites into Earth’s orbit.

Carbon emissions from the rocket will be reduced significantly owing to the bio-fuel it will use. It is thought this will lead to 96 per cent less emissions than rockets using fossil fuels.

UK Science Minister George Freeman said: “This is a hugely exciting time for the UK space and satellite sector as we count down to the first satellite launches from UK spaceports.

“Orbex Prime is a remarkable feat of engineering from a British rocket company, pioneering more sustainable and innovative fuels that cut carbon emissions.

“It is also fantastic to see Moray-based Orbex creating more high-quality jobs, demonstrating the value of our thriving space sector to support emerging clusters of innovation to help level up the whole of the UK.”

Updated: May 11, 2022, 7:19 AM