Article Source: IMechE
A worker in front of an Oxford Space Systems antenna (Credit: Oxford Space Systems)A worker in front of an Oxford Space Systems antenna (Credit: Oxford Space Systems)

One arm coolly resting on the deep red door, the “Starman” seems unaware – or simply unconcerned – that his Tesla Roadster is off course on its journey to Mars and will end up floating in empty space.

It is an image that could one day be as iconic as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin placing an American flag on the Moon, a symbol of the new private space race and SpaceX’s current supremacy.

“You may expect in a week where a certain American has stunned the world with his audacity and his brilliant rocketry that I might comment on that achievement and be dazzled by his mission,” said Emily Gravestock from the UK Space Agency to a packed meet-and-greet for the British space sector.

However, she claimed, she was “far more blown away” with the event’s turn-out – everyone from two-person operation MassTerra to multinational giants such as Airbus attended the Westminster event. We went along to find some of the most innovative British space engineering.

Oxford Space Systems

Mike Lawton and Shefali Sharma of Oxford Space Systems

Mike Lawton and Shefali Sharma of Oxford Space Systems

One second, the roll of black material sits comfortably in Shefali Sharma’s hand. The next, it unravels suddenly into a thin structure stretching a metre or two across the room, narrowly missing someone tapping away at a laptop.

“Normally carbon fibre would shatter, and can’t do that,” says Oxford Space Systems‘ founder and CEO Mike Lawton. The firm’s 22-person team has experimented with different fibres, resins and the curing process to develop new composites, adapting the rigid and lightweight material to also make it foldable – and therefore compact enough to fit on satellites.

They are now using it to make boom arms, antennas and other structures for new satellites. “It’s a very scaleable, very tuneable material and we are not limited to the size of structures that we can make,” says Lawton.

In fact, as the demonstration showed, a main challenge is making sure rapidly-unfolding structures do not destabilise satellites in zero-g environments and knock them out of orbit. To release the structures in a gentler way, the venture capital-backed company is experimenting with small deployment motors and damping materials.

All the improvements have helped make lower-cost satellite structures, says business developer and space engineer Sharma. They are also manufactured exclusively in the UK, an attractive advantage for national defence applications.


iStock-182062885 2
Stock image (Credit: iStock)

A British rocket last launched a satellite into space 50 years ago – Skyrora is determined to change that.

The Edinburgh and London-based manufacturer says it will fire its first test rocket this year, playing its part in the government’s goal of capturing 10% of the global small satellite launch market by 2030.

British rocket companies have a great opportunity to capitalise on a national speciality in nanosatellites from companies such as Clyde Space, says Skyrora’s Owain Hughes. “I don’t know how well-suited bigger companies like SpaceX actually are for nanosatellites… their business model, their business mantra seems to be geared towards big payloads.”



The VividX2 satellite is launched into space (Credit: Earth-i/ ISRO)

One of the admittedly numerous problems with filming video from space, says Owen Hawkins, is the speed involved – satellites flying at 7km/s do not have long to fix a subject in their lens. Guildford-based Earth-i is determined to overcome this issue with the launch of five more satellites to its Vivid-i constellation from the end of next year.

The operator’s first satellite, VividX2, made headlines in January when it became the first to provide full-colour high-definition video streaming from a satellite. The aim, says manager Hawkins, is to provide high-resolution video of areas around the world multiple times per day at relatively short notice.

Power Market


Stock image (Credit: iStock)

Despite massive market growth and technological improvements, deciding when and where to install solar farms is still a convoluted and archaic process. It is a “door-to-door” approach as companies try to convince governments and utilities of the technology’s worth, says Abhinav Jain, co-founder and CEO of Power Market, and one in sore need of updating.

The answer, the Oxford-based company says, is artificial intelligence (AI). It has spent the last two years developing a product alongside Oxford University and the European Space Agency, to supply “solar intelligence” to utilities companies, government agencies and even individuals.

The AI combines satellite data with other factors such as weather information and local government policies, to provide a complete picture of the emissions and financial benefits the technology could bring. “It helps customers understand whether their individual, specified place is suitable for a solar installation,” says Jain.

University of Southampton


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Mingling with multinationals and start-ups alike at the Westminster event were students from several UK universities, each operating at the cutting edge of their fields and offering new visions for the future.

The University of Southampton highlighted small, cheap propulsion systems for satellites, including electrospray and Hall effect thrusters. Astronautics engineer Charlie Ryan hopes to commercialise the technology, especially for cubesats – but sadly for SpaceX’s Starman, swinging away from the Red Planet, it is not available yet.

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