UK space sector boosted with the installation of giant new satellite test chamber

National Satellite Test Facility RAL 1

On the day that the UK and US governments signed a new agreement paving the way for US companies to operate from UK spaceports, 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 at Harwell Campus, Oxfordshire.

The enormous chamber will be used by the space industry to test spacecraft up to seven 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.

National Satellite Test Facility 2Science 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.”

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.
National Satellite Test Facility 3Professor 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.
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.
Matt Fletcher, Head of Environmental Test, RAL Space said, “In addition to the current small, medium and large chambers RAL Space offers to the space sector, this new chamber vastly increases our test capacity, allowing much larger space hardware to be tested. It will allow us to test even more of the satellites which serve our everyday life, from telecommunications satellites which transmit our TV signal to the satellites monitoring the health of our planet, right here in the UK. Alongside UK launch capability, the National Satellite Test Facility supports UK businesses to compete globally to make these missions a reality.”
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​.​