Rutherford Appleton Laboratory


RAL Space

RAL Space, based at the Science and Technology Facilities Council’s (STFC) Rutherford Appleton Laboratory (RAL), carries out an exciting range of world-class space research and technology development. We have significant involvement in over 200 space missions and are at the forefront of UK Space Research.

Our 200 staff are dedicated to supporting the programmes of the STFC and the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), as well as undertaking a large number of space projects for UK and overseas agencies, universities and industrial companies.

We work alongside the UK Space Agency who co-ordinate UK civil space activities.

We undertake world-leading space research and technology development, provide space test and ground-based facilities, design and build instruments, analyse and process data and operate S- and X-band ground-station facilities, as well as lead conceptual studies for future missions. We work with space and ground-based groups around the world.

Key facts

Much of our work is in collaboration with UK university research groups and a range of institutes around the world. Most of these collaborations have been set up to support the European Space Agency (ESA) and NASA missions, although RAL is also working on projects with other countries and organisations including Australia, Japan, Morocco, Pakistan, Russia and the European Union.

We provide opportunities for hosting scientists and engineers on sabbatical leave, visiting scientists on short term visits and for university sandwich course students on one-year placements. RAL Space also provides graduate engineer training and CASE (Cooperative Awards in Science and Engineering) studentships.


Data management

RAL Space has wide experience in the processing, analysis and archiving of science data. We deal with all aspects of data relating to astronomy, solar environmental physics and Earth observation. We run data access and analysis services for environmental science and develop data processing and archiving systems. We also develop international standards for space systems, the long term preservation of data and the dissemination of space, climate and environmental data to the scientific community.

We also operate the RAL ground station which is used to communicate with spacecraft on a range of scientific missions. A large part of the work of the Division is the development of software to make these activities possible.


Space research

RAL Space undertakes pure research in solar physics, solar-terrestrial physics, atmospheric physics, planetary and magnetospheric physics, astronomy and fundamental physics. The research encompasses a wide range of interests, running in close harmony with the space hardware projects and involves collaboration with many university groups in the UK and abroad.

The Sun

RAL Space has a long heritage of solar space mission involvement, mainly through the development and operation of spectroscopic instrumentation in the extreme-UV and X-ray wavelengths, but also in heliospheric imaging. We use observations of the solar atmosphere to determine its plasma characteristics, study complex processes of energy release in big, violent flares and ubiquitous tiny nanoflares, and track huge mass eruptions all the way from the Sun’s corona to beyond the Earth’s orbit. Our aim is to understand and predict how the Sun works and affects the solar system and the Earth’s environment.

Near-Earth environment

The near-Earth environment is a wonderful natural laboratory for studying fundamental phenomena in the physics of plasmas (ionised gases). Our scientists study these phenomena using space-based and ground-based instruments.

Earth observation

Making observations of the land, sea and air from space allows scientists to develop and improve their models of our environment. Space instruments provide continuous global measurements for many years at a time, allowing events like El Nino to be studied.

RAL Space scientists contribute to and underpin UK and international programmes in environmental science through the provision of research expertise, services and facilities in support of the UK science community.

Planetary science

RAL Space has a very strong instrument programme, including missions to all the inner solar system planets, as well as comets and the Saturnian system. These missions continue to yield a wealth of science and help us to understand the Earth and the solar system as well as the planetary systems of other stars.


RAL Space supports astronomers using instruments in space and on the ground, with a wide range of expertise in design, building, testing and calibration. RAL scientists also participate in astronomical research using data from these and other instruments to further our understanding of galaxies and the formation of stars and planets.

We are at the heart of the UK’s infrared/microwave astronomy programme, with past involvement in the IRAS and ISO missions, and recent missions such as ESA’s Herschel and Planck spacecraft, and the follow-on to the Hubble Space Telescope, the NASA James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). We also have involvement in astronomical missions at other wavelengths, such as the on-going NASA FUSE observatory and are playing a role in defining future missions such as Darwin, for finding Earth-like planets.


We are based at STFC’s Rutherford Appleton Laboratory near Didcot in Oxfordshire:

RAL Space
Science and Technology Facilities Council
Rutherford Appleton Laboratory
Harwell Campus
OX11 0QX

Telephone: 01235 445 620


We also have an Observatory at Chilbolton, Nr Stockbridge in Hampshire:

Chilbolton Observatory
Science and Technology Facilities Council
SO20 6BJ

Telephone: 01264 860 391




Main objectives

Development of wireless systems for broadband services


BROADWAN has three major goals:

  • to develop economically realistic network architecture to provide true broadband services for all citizens in Europe
  • to give European industry a lead in next generation wireless solutions
  • to motivate take up of advanced broadband services at all levels of society by performing wireless demonstrations and trials in rural areas.

SSTD involvement

RCRU Radio communications systems, radiowave propagation, simulation tools.


  • Telenor
  • Alvarion
  • BUTE
  • Cegetel
  • CoRiTeL
  • CNRS
  • Joanneum Research
  • Nera
  • Aniel
  • TUC-N
  • Telecom Castilla – La Mancha
  • Thales Communications
  • Thomson
  • TUCR
  • University of Salzburg
  • University of Cardiff
  • Thales Research and Technology
  • University of Buckingham
  • T-Systems RIC
  • Navus
  • Moviquity
  • Infoglobal
  • Telecoms Connect

Current phase



Mike Willis


For more information, please visit the RAL Space website.

Sea and Land Surface Temperature Radiometer

The Sea and Land Surface Temperature Radiometer (SLSTR) on the ESA/EU GMES Sentinel-3 mission will provide highly accurate measurements of global Earth surface temperatures. Data from SLSTR will continue the sea surface temperature (SST) records provided by the successful Along Track Scanning Radiometer (ATSR) series. As with ATSR, the principle design feature is a conical scanning geometry that provides two views of the earth at different view angles to enable accurate atmospheric correction. SLSTR builds on the concept by incorporating a wider swath to improve the global coverage and incorporates additional spectral channels to improve cloud detection and forest fire detection.

The design concept for SLSTR, that was originally proposed in from studies undertaken by RAL Space and Thales, is currently being developed for flight by the instrument prime contractor Selex Galileo (Italy). RAL Space scientists and engineers are playing a key role in the development of the instrument design, its calibration and the definition of the data products and processing algorithms. A dedicated facility is being built at RAL Space for the pre-flight calibration activities that are essential for SLSTR providing accurate and traceable measurements.

Space Test Facilities

The testing of products designed for use in space missions is essential for the success of a mission. Equipment and materials need to be tested for resilience to extreme temperatures, vibrations and pressure.

STFC’s Assembly Integration and Verification Facility at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory consists of a vibration test facility, thermal vacuum and bakeout facility, and large clean rooms for assembling sensitive flight hardware.

The facility’s experience in the space industry has required work to the strict quality standards imposed by the ESA and NASA. These high standards have nurtured an outlook which ensures testing remains within timescales and is of consistent quality. In recognition of our space product assurance system we have been awarded the ISO 9000-2000 accreditation.

Last updated: 13 April 2022

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