Lift off for UK’s National Satellite Test Facility

STFC Executive Chair, Professor Mark Thomson, Director of RAL Space, Dr Sarah Beardsley, and UK Space Agency CEO, Dr Paul Bate at the opening event for the NSTF.

The UK’s first 'one-stop shop' for large satellite testing has officially opened its doors and is set to welcome its first customers.

The National Satellite Test Facility (NSTF), operated by the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) RAL Space, is set to ensure that spacecraft up to seven tonnes will survive launch and the harsh conditions of space. It is based at the Harwell Science and Innovation Campus and forms part of the STFC-supported Harwell Space Cluster.

Yesterday, 21 May 2024, the NSTF hosted an official opening event ahead of welcoming its first customers later this year. At the event, it was announced that the UK Space Agency is the latest customer to sign a contract to use the NSTF for testing the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Ariel payload.

Space-like conditions

The NSTF is capable of testing minibus-sized satellites under similar conditions to those they will meet on their journey through space.

Satellites will be shaken violently to simulate rocket launch conditions, and ‘baked’ in the UK’s largest space test chamber to check their resilience to extreme temperatures in Earth’s orbit and further afield.

The NSTF also features an impressive electromagnetic compatibility and antenna test chamber where satellites’ communications systems can be tested securely.

Answering the call

Plans for the NSTF began in 2015 when a Facilities Gap Study led by the UK Space Agency, with inputs from space businesses, found a critical need for a single, UK-based large-scale testing facility.

The NSTF is based in the heart of Oxfordshire’s Harwell Space Cluster, which is already a bustling campus of more than 100 local and international space organisations.

The UK is investing more than £100 million in the NSTF to strengthen the UK’s position as a world-leading satellite manufacturer and help deliver the national space strategy.

RAL Space has decades of experience operating similar tests in its existing facilities, which include a range of vacuum chambers up to 5m in diameter and a smaller-scale vibration facility.

The NSTF has extended RAL Space’s capabilities and its team of experts, having already led directly to 30 new jobs in the Oxfordshire area, including several apprenticeship and graduate opportunities.

Transforming space science

Andrew Griffith MP, Minister for Space at the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology, said:

The opening of the new National Satellite Test Facility is a significant milestone for the UK’s growing space sector that will offer the tools necessary to innovate for years to come in a competitive global market.

By simulating the tough conditions of launch and orbit through rigorous testing, it will increase the resilience of our satellite technology to drive forward advances in navigation, weather forecasting and more – positioning our sector at the forefront of pioneering new space technologies.

Only the beginning

Dr Sarah Beardsley, Director of RAL Space, said:

I’m delighted that the National Satellite Test Facility is open for business. This is a huge achievement not just for RAL Space, but for the wider UK space sector.

It’s taken a lot of collaborative effort to get to this point, but the exciting part – using this facility to support the delivery of the National Space Strategy and prepare large-scale satellites for their various missions in space – is only just about to begin.

I’m very proud that RAL Space’s heritage and expertise in space science, technology development and testing is recognised in this flagship UK facility.

Welcoming new customers

The UK Space Agency was announced as part of the event as the latest customer to sign a contract to use the NSTF for testing the ESA Ariel payload.

The UK is already playing an important role in this upcoming astronomy mission, which will study the chemistry of around 1,000 planets outside our solar system. RAL Space is leading the international payload consortium and the mission science is led by University College London.

As well as helping further understanding of our wider Universe, the NSTF will support science and security missions closer to home.

Contracts have already been signed with Thales Alenia Space and Airbus Defence and Space to test ESA’s FLEX Earth observation satellite and SKYNET 6A, the latest satellite in the UK Ministry of Defence’s secure communication programme.

Supporting international efforts

Professor Mark Thomson, Executive Chair of STFC, said:

UK satellite manufacturers will now have a state-of-the-art one-stop test facility on their doorstep with the capability to test large satellites.

The NSTF will also enable the UK to support major international efforts in fields including space exploration and Earth observation. Cutting-edge facilities around the globe, such as the NSTF, enable the international community to accelerate the development of next generation of space technologies and large-scale scientific missions.

STFC is proud to support this world-leading UK facility that will provide a major new sovereign space capability, which will contribute to our national goals for space as set out in the National Space Strategy.

Top image:  STFC Executive Chair, Professor Mark Thomson, Director of RAL Space, Dr Sarah Beardsley, and UK Space Agency CEO, Dr Paul Bate at the opening event for the NSTF. Credit: Science and Technology Facilities Council

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