Herts in space - how the county is leading exploration

The BepiColombo satellite will gather data from Mercury

The BepiColombo satellite will gather data from Mercury - Credit: Archant

With decades of experience in aerospace and communications technology, Hertfordshire is now helping search for extra-terrestrial life, better understand the universe and chart the global climate, as well as beaming your favourite TV shows into your living room. Ewan Foskett reports on a booming county industry

Tests on a satellite at Astrium's Stevenage site

Tests on a satellite at Astrium's Stevenage site - Credit: Archant

The iconic sight of a NASA shuttle erupting from Cape Canaveral is the image most people associate with the space sector. But thousands of miles away from the Floridian heat, Hertfordshire plays host to the development of groundbreaking technology that has shaped, and continues to shape, the space industry.

The Duke of Kent being introduced to Bruno - Astrium's ExoMars Rover prototype by engineer Paul Meac

The Duke of Kent being introduced to Bruno - Astrium's ExoMars Rover prototype by engineer Paul Meacham. - Credit: Archant


Bayfordbury Observatory

Bayfordbury Observatory - Credit: Archant


The ASTRA 5B Mistral satellite built at Stevenage

The ASTRA 5B Mistral satellite built at Stevenage - Credit: Archant

Stevenage is home to Astrium, a company which has worked on hundreds of satellites and devices at the forefront of the high tech space communications industry. Millions watched the glitz and glory of London 2012’s Olympics around the world thanks to its satellites.

Astrium employs 1,400 people at its site and is leading the way on cutting edge projects – some of which wouldn’t sound amiss in a James Bond plot.

One project is for a ‘space harpoon’ to tidy up space junk orbiting the earth. The device, fitted with five or more harpoons, would use guidance systems to target debris from old satellites, rockets and other space hardware and then capture these with a gas-propelled harpoon on a tether before dragging the debris into the atmosphere to burn up before it returns to Earth.

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It is one of company spokesman Jeremy Close’s favourite projects. But he singled out a bigger mission that is at the forefront of space exploration.


The red planet

‘One of our flagship missions is the European Space Agency Mars Rover Mission – ExoMars,’ he said. ‘We are responsible for the design and manufacture of the rover vehicle and have developed a number of prototypes – including Bridget and Bruno.

‘The mission is due to lift off for the red planet in 2018 – so we are busy to say the least.’

Unlike previous rovers that needed to be controlled by humans, the next generation will be able to decide on their own course across Mars’ uneven, gully-strewn surface, identifying hazards and plotting the best route to any destination. Back on Earth, human controllers simply provide target location co-ordinates.

Bridget and Bruno were both built in Stevenage and the rovers have been tested in one of the most inhospitable regions in the world – the Atacama desert in Chile. It is one of the most Mars-like places on the planet due to its rough terrain and lack of humidity. The robots were also put through their paces at a mock Mars facility in Stevenage.

The company submitted a planning application to the local council in October to build a new centre on its Gunnels Wood Road premises dedicated to the research and development of its rovers, which, among other things, will look for evidence of life on Mars.


A real success story

As well as increasing knowledge about the solar system, the space sector has tangible economic benefits for Hertfordshire and the UK as a whole.

A recent parliamentary select committee labelled the sector ‘a real success story’. It is worth £9bn to the UK every year and the industry is pushing for the nation’s global share to increase. The industry aims to push the UK’s share of the global space market from the current 6.5 per cent to 10 per cent by 2030. This would give Britain a £40 billion industry and create 100,000 new jobs.

Astrium is in an ideal position to help expand this vital sector, which would boost the local economy, Jeremy Close said. He explained, ‘Astrium is currently the world’s second largest space company, with more 18,000 people across the world. Stevenage is a key base, with a very skilled workface and state-of-the-art clean room facilities for manufacturing a full range of satellites.

‘Astrium has been on the site for 60 years and to date we have built or been involved with more than 130 satellites – we have built 60 telecommunications satellites alone, and have another 12 on our order book.’

He added, ‘Space touches more and more of our daily lives, whether it’s innovative uses for GPS or better weather forecasting preventing crop damage, or better planning for major infrastructure projects using data from satellites. Space images are even used to pinpoint the best places to drill for oil at sea.

‘The market is predicted to continue to grow – and Britain needs to increase its share.

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