We’re leading the way in space

The HYLAS 1 broadband satellite
The HYLAS 1 broadband satellite
Dr John Steadman, archivist of Portsmouth History Centre based at Portsmouth Central Library     Picture:  Malcolm Wells

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Space. They say it’s the final frontier – and Portsmouth is playing a key role in exploring it.

The story of Portsmouth in space is not quite one of battleships to spaceships. Where we saw Nelson emerge from the George Hotel to embark in the Victory for Trafalgar, we won’t see a Captain Kirk-type figure climb on board a spaceship via the upper viewing platform of the Spinnaker Tower.

LIFT OFF EADS Astrium's satellite HYLAS-1 launched into space

LIFT OFF EADS Astrium's satellite HYLAS-1 launched into space

Instead scientists and experts from the city are working on ways to find out more about how the universe began and the possibility of life somewhere in the ether.

And let’s not forget the city’s pivotal role in building giant satellites and the university’s Institute of Cosmology and Gravitation, which is at the forefront of research into a complete theory of the universe.

The city’s role in developing space technology is certainly not as well-known as its role in the UK’s naval history. But in terms of the global space stage, the city is becoming a very big player indeed.

For example, a group of cosmology researchers at the University of Portsmouth has won a £1m grant to fund further research which will take them a step closer to achieving a complete theory of the universe.

The money has been awarded by the Science and Technology Facilities Council to continue research into how the universe fits together.

The eight-strong team will use massive new sky surveys to explore the properties of dark matter and dark energy that make up 96 per cent of the universe. They will also look at how galaxies, the ‘building blocks’ of the universe, form and evolve.

Reader in cosmology Dr Robert Crittenden says: ‘Cosmologists still face fundamental challenges before a complete theory of the universe can be achieved.

‘This grant will allow us to examine surveys of galaxies in unprecedented depth and we can use the information to see what the universe is made up of and how it is structured.’

The cosmologists will use the Dark Energy Survey, which digitally images the sky, to measure the clustering of galaxies to high precision. It uses an extremely sensitive digital camera, mounted on a telescope high in the Chilean Andes.

They’ll combine data from this with data from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, which maps a quarter of the entire sky.

The SDSS is one of the most ambitious and influential surveys in the history of astronomy.

Co-director of the ICG Professor Bob Nichol explains: ‘This is an exciting project for our researchers to get their teeth into. Pulling together the different elements of this study will help us determine the important physics that drive galaxy evolution.’

The city is also playing an important part in trying to find out what happened at the very beginning of the universe.

Experts from the city are working with global scientists on the EUR 1.5bn Square Kilometre Array (pictured), which, despite its name, is a radio telescope field the size of a continent.

It will be built in either Australia or South Africa and will be able to collect radio waves carrying signals from gas clouds emitted before the formation of the first stars. This means it can look back billions of years to reveal how the universe formed immediately after the Big Bang.

It will investigate the possibility of life on far-off planets and will also test Einstein’s theory of general relativity. It is due to be up and running by 2024.

Les Gregory, BAE Systems Mission Systems’ Radar Director, based in Portsmouth, says the project will be very exciting for the global space community, and could help foster a whole new generation of space scientists.

‘The Square Kilometre Array is international ‘megascience’ at its most innovative, and will be similar in scale and ambition to projects like CERN’s Large Hadron Collider or the ITER nuclear fusion programme.

‘With that ambition comes engineering and project management complexity.’

Les says BAE Systems, based at Portsmouth Naval Base, could use its experience of building warships to provide expert help to those putting together the array.

‘It’s a huge project and something that’s never been done before. It has a very long lifecycle attached to it, and it has the characteristics of a big military project. It’s big and it’s complex and we have a lot of competence in that area.

‘I’m not suggesting I’m an expert, but I genuinely hope this will be something quite inspiring.

‘Some of my colleagues look back to when Patrick Moore was on The Sky at Night, Tomorrow’s World – this is the same, it’s beyond the normal education curriculum.’

Scientists working in the company’s radar arm on the Isle of Wight will also be helping to put the project together during the next 13 years or so.

In return, BAE Systems’ engineers will gain insights into complex research that is pioneering new radio signal processing techniques required to handle data rates that far exceed anything seen to date.

Figures from the UK Space Agency say the industry is growing, despite the economic conditions, and the government announced in the budget a new £10m National Space Technology Programme and regulation changes to UK space law.

It means that Portsmouth’s role in the UK space industry could expand just like the universe. Colin Paynter, the CEO of EADS Astrium in the UK, which has its headquarters at Anchorage Park, says: ‘It will play a vital part in continuing to drive innovation in Britain’s thriving space industry.

‘This additional money will be matched by industry investment and shows a real commitment to growth within the sector.’

Just last month, the company’s ground-breaking spacecraft, the HYLAS-1 satellite, was handed over to a satellite broadband operator, four months after it was launched into space.

It helps cover the UK’s most out-of-reach areas and ensures that even small villages have fast internet connections.

The electronic ‘brains’ of this satellite were manufactured in the Astrium satellite factory in Hilsea.

It took around 100 workers three-and-a-half years to complete the project.

Dr Mike Healy, Astrium’s director for navigation, explains: ‘The more remote regions in the UK and the

rest of Europe don’t have the structures or carbon fibre to access broadband services of any decent standard.

‘It is a very significant achievement. It’s a unique satellite.’

Located to the north east of Portsmouth, the site has played a major role in the development of the UK’s space capabilities since the 1960s.

Now, its 1,400 staff are involved in the design, build and test of advanced parts for mobile and military communications satellites, world-leading Earth observation payloads with advanced space-borne radars, sensors and scientific instruments, and parts for the Galileo navigation system satellites. A bit different from Nelson’s day.

Royal Wedding Route

It’s not all about the universe. Portsmouth’s space industries are using the ether to give us some quirky benefits on Earth too.

Astrium, Europe’s leading space company, has launched a 3D fly-through of the Royal wedding route that will be taken by HRH Prince William and Catherine Middleton on April 29.

The 3D flythrough will enable people to experience the couple’s journey from St James’s Palace to Westminster Abbey.

It also shows the route they will take back to Buckingham Palace after the wedding ceremony.

Astrium has mapped out this route thanks to Skape, a 3D mapping service from its GEO-Information Services division, which combines 3D city models with 2D mapping and terrain data.

The innovation will have more practical applications, too.

Through Skape, urban planners can now rapidly develop highly-detailed architectural models, saving on both project time and costs.

New buildings can be imported into a city and viewed in context with their surroundings, whilst existing buildings can be instantly removed and replaced.

The high level of accuracy means that varying building textures, street furniture, light and sun shadowing at different times of the day, and unlimited vantage points can all be observed from anywhere.

n To see the Royal wedding flythrough, go to astrium.eads.net/en/news2/royal-wedding-route-in-3d.html