Boost for UK Space Sector As New Rocket Testing Facility Launched

Science Minister Amanda Solloway. Image: Gov.uk

The UK’s space sector has received a boost with a new rocket testing facility. The hi-tech centre was unveiled by Science Minister Amanda Solloway on June 17.

THE centre will allow UK companies and academics to test state-of-the-art propulsion engines which are used to move small satellites in space at a more affordable rate than having to go abroad. It will also allow new types of more sustainable propellants to be tested, such as Hydrogen Peroxide and Liquid Oxygen which are more environmentally friendly in sourcing, storage and combustion.

Based at the Westcott Space Cluster in Aylesbury Vale Enterprise Zone, the new National Space Propulsion Test Facility (NSPTF), which received £4 million in funding from the UK Space Agency, is the only facility of its kind in the UK. It is one of only three in the world and will create around 60 jobs.

Until now, companies could test extremely small engines in the UK but had to go overseas to test bigger engines. The new facility will tackle this issue and help grow the UK’s status as a leading space player, giving the British space industry the resources it needs to expand.

Science Minister Amanda Solloway said, “As we build back better, we are investing in our brightest space scientists, the facilities they work in and the technologies they are creating. This pioneering facility will support our ambitious space businesses, enabling them to undertake complex spacecraft engine testing, while boosting the local economy by creating highly skilled jobs.

“The UK space sector is already a leader in satellite propulsion and, with a growing space manufacturing sector and plans for the first launches from UK spaceports in 2022, the satellite propulsion field is set to grow substantially in the coming years,” she added.

How does the engine test work?

Engines will be fired up in a vacuum, with a mechanical pump system generating a vacuum down to 1.5 milliBar in a test cell containing the engine; an equivalent test altitude of approximately 140,000ft, which ensures technology can be deemed ready for the space environment.

When firing, the pressure of the engine’s exhaust plume is partially recovered by a seven-metre-long supersonic diffuser. The rocket plume intercooler developed by Reaction Engines will remove heat generated from rocket exhaust plume and allow the vacuum pumps to operate and maintain the simulated high-altitude conditions. This means the intercooler will cool exhaust temperatures of in excess of 2,000°C to less than 50°C in a fraction of a second, in less than a metre’s distance.

The gasses then travel along a vacuum manifold to be recovered to ambient pressure by the pump system in the vacuum generation plant.

Crucially, this range of engine testing will allow further innovation for the type of orbit-raising and station-keeping engines this facility will be able to test. It is the first step in a plan to test larger engine types.


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Written by

Deirdre Tynan

Deirdre Tynan is an award-winning journalist who enjoys bringing the best in news reporting to Spain’s largest English-language newspaper, Euro Weekly News. She has previously worked at The Mirror, Ireland on Sunday and for news agencies, media outlets and international organisations in America, Europe and Asia. A huge fan of British politics and newspapers, Deirdre is equally fascinated by the political scene in Madrid and Sevilla. She moved to Spain in 2018 and is based in Jaen.

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