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Satellite Communications Technology

UK space sector gets a boost with the installation of a giant new satellite test chamber

(17 June 2020 - STFC) The UK’s space industry has received a major piece of new equipment to help get larger, more complex satellites ready for launch.

A 16m long space test chamber, amongst the giants of Europe, has been installed in the UK’s National Satellite Test Facility in Oxfordshire.

  • The Large Space Test Chamber will test spacecraft for the harsh conditions of space including extreme temperatures from -180C to +100C
  • It has been installed in the National Satellite Test Facility, a UK government investment to build the UK’s largest set of co-located equipment for testing spacecraft which will be opened by the Science and Technology and Facility Council’s (STFC) RAL Space in 2022
  • UK and international businesses will be able to test spacecraft up to the size of a minibus as well as fleets of shoebox-size satellites supporting the growth of the UK’s £14.8 billion sector

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First section ready for installation. (courtesy: STFC RAL Space)

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RAL Space team with the LSTC. (courtesy: STFC RAL Space)

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Artist's impression of the NSTF. (courtesy: IBI Group)

The enormous chamber will be used by the space industry to test spacecraft up to 7 tonnes for the harsh conditions of space. The chamber can be heated and cooled using nitrogen cooled shroud panels to achieve a temperature range of 95 Kelvin to 373 Kelvin to (-180 C to +100 C) so that satellites can be tested for missions into the chill of deep space or near to the Sun. It will be operated by STFC’s RAL Space, and alongside other test equipment at the National Satellite Test Facility will enable UK businesses to bid competitively for new contracts and remain a world leader in space technologies.

The chamber completed a long and complex journey from the manufacturers Angelantoni Test Technologies Srl based in Massa Martana, Italy, to be installed in the facility at the Harwell Campus in Oxfordshire. A team of specialist commissioning engineers will travel from Italy to Harwell to complete the installation and testing of the vacuum vessel later in the year.

Professor Chris Mutlow, Director of RAL Space said: “This has been an incredible feat of engineering and logistics. The installation of a facility of this scale is at the best of times fraught with complexities but this has been made even more challenging because of coronavirus. I am delighted that the chamber has completed its epic 5800km journey and is now safely in position in the National Satellite Test Facility where it will offer a new capability to the space community as part of the only set of co-located space test facilities at this large scale in the UK.”

Weighing more than 98 tonnes in total, the chamber was transported in sections on 6 lorries accompanied by 6 police outriders and 5 support vehicles. The convoy from Portsmouth Harbour to Harwell Campus was one of the largest single road movements the UK has ever seen.

Each of the 8m diameter sections then had to be lifted into place and carefully positioned in order to be sealed perfectly later in the year. The final walls of the building will now be constructed around the chamber.

Sean Stewart, STFC’s National Satellite Test Facility Project Manager said: “The installation of the large space test chamber would have been an extraordinary endeavour at the best of times. In the current challenging circumstances, the team worked tirelessly through lockdown, first in Italy and then in the UK, to get the space test chamber into place. The final walls will now go up around the chamber and once complete, the National Satellite Test Facility will play a key role in securing end-to-end capability to build, test and launch satellites from the UK.”

Alongside the space test chamber, the National Satellite Test Facility will also offer vibration and pyro-shock equipment, electromagnetic compatibility (EMC) and antenna measurement system and acoustic testing. Construction will be complete in 2021 and operational from 2022. It builds on the existing suite of environmental test facilities and expertise at RAL Space which include a further 10 space test chambers ranging from just 1m in diameter to 5m diameter.

Science Minister Amanda Solloway said: “The UK is a world-leader in space technology and this impressive new chamber, backed by government funding, will significantly bolster our satellite testing capabilities.

“Importantly, it will ensure that our space industry has the first-class facilities they need to test large, complex spacecraft as we work towards the UK’s first satellite launch.”

Dr Graham Turnock, Chief Executive of the UK Space Agency, said: “The installation of the state of the art satellite test chamber is a huge boost for the UK space sector and demonstrates our commitment to strengthening the UK’s national space capabilities. The National Satellite Test Facility will make UK industry more competitive when bidding for national and international contracts and encourage new businesses to come here from all over the world.”

The National Satellite Test Facility has been funded by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy as part of the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund.