New ESA Center Concentrates British Space R&D

Q&A with Richard Holdaway, Rutherford Appleton Laboratory

4 min read

In October 2009, two months before the UK government announced that it would set up an independent space agency, IEEE Spectrum’s Jean Kumagai spoke with British space expert Richard Holdaway. Holdaway is director for space science and technology at Rutherford Appleton Laboratory (RAL) on the Harwell Science and Innovation Campus, near Oxford, England. A major part of the UK’s space research is based there, and last July the European Space Agency (ESA) selected it as the site of its first UK facility. Holdaway talked about what the new ESA center will likely accomplish, how his lab builds the best small scientific cameras, and how space technology is being adapted to help catch terrorists. 

IEEE Spectrum: What is the significance of the new ESA facility and of the Harwell Science and Innovation Campus, where it will be based?

Richard Holdaway: It is the first major center for the ESA in the UK. The ESA’s headquarters are in Paris, its technology center is in Holland, its main ground station is in Germany, and its data-processing center is in Italy. So the UK was the only major player that didn’t have a center. The new center will focus on planetary exploration, climate change, and industrial applications, such as the technologies that the ESA will need in the long term to enable us to do smarter and cheaper things in space. The new center is up and running with a small team that will likely grow to about 100 people in a year and a half.

The Harwell campus is going to be a catalyst for space—a leading space city for industry and academia. The Harwell campus consists of RAL and what used to be the UK Atomic Energy Authority; it covers roughly a square mile. In 2006, the then-chancellor of the exchequer, Gordon Brown, who is now prime minister, said in a speech that Harwell would be the primary campus in south England for large-scale science facilities and would serve as the interface between academia and industry. There are a number of large facilities here already: Diamond is the newest X-ray synchrotron in the world. ISIS is the largest source of pulsed neutrons. And my department is Europe’s largest space department.

Right now, about 3500 to 4000 people work on the campus, but it has room for about 10 000, and we’re building all the time. It could be a very large space city within five years.

We’re in discussions with a number of large and small space companies to bring their R&D here. They can work on their own or in collaboration with other companies, and they will have access to all of the facilities at RAL, such as the microelectronics and supercomputing facilities. [In December, a delegation from Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, signed a memorandum of understanding with RAL to further cooperation between UK and Russian space scientists.]

Lockheed Martin was here recently, looking to set up a base. My department has a long history going back 25 years with Lockheed, primarily on instruments for solar physics and the space environment. For example, we worked with Lockheed on the imager for NASA’s STEREO [Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory], which is now in orbit around the sun. We also built the camera systems for NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory [scheduled for launch in February 2010], for which Lockheed was a contractor.

Spectrum: Whose idea was it to create an academic-industrial hub at Harwell?

Holdaway: The concept came up in the back of a car in China. In 2006, I was in Beijing for some meetings that also involved Lord Sainsbury, who was then the UK’s science minister. On Saturday morning, he rang and said he was going out to see the Great Wall and asked if I would like to go along. I’d seen the wall before, but I thought, sitting in a car with a government minister for 2 hours each way, you can get through a lot of discussion in that time. By the time we got back to Beijing, we had convinced ourselves that a space city at Harwell was the right thing to do.

Spectrum: Will the new UK space agency be based at Harwell, too?

Holdaway: It’s not clear yet, but it’s a definite possibility. That’s not to say that everything in space will happen at Harwell.

Spectrum: Like Surrey Satellite—they’re not based at Harwell. 

Holdaway: Right. They are the world leaders in microsatellites. Just as Surrey builds the best microsatellites, RAL builds the best instruments, including small cameras, in the world. We’ve collaborated with Surrey on microsatellites such as TopSat, which does the same thing that the Earth-imaging satellite Ikonos does, but with a much smaller spacecraft and camera and a much smaller launch vehicle. TopSat has a 2.5-meter resolution, it only cost $25 million to build, including the launch and operations, and it took two years, start to finish.

Of course, U.S. imaging satellites tend to have better capability at higher resolutions. But they’re much bigger and much more expensive. So for the same price as one big bird, which takes six to seven years, costs $500 million, and only passes over two or three times a day, you could launch a whole constellation of microsatellites, with real-time coverage, anywhere on the globe.

RAL Space currently has about 100 projects, some with NASA, some with ESA. We have just over 200 instruments in space right now, far more than any other lab in Europe. We’re developing a camera for the Brazilian government to monitor deforestation in the Amazon. We’re also developing cameras for robotic exploration of Mars. And we have upcoming programs in solar physics. Pretty much most types of space science and technology are undertaken here.

We’ve also spun out the technology for our cameras to MDA [MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates], based in Richmond, B.C, Canada. Part of the mission for Harwell is to take ideas from the space program and spin them out to nonspace applications. One example is ThruVision Systems, which was set up three years ago from work done in our department on technology for astronomy at terahertz frequencies. ThruVision is now building terahertz scanners for airports and financial centers, to monitor for guns and knives and plastic explosives hidden under people’s clothes. It has nothing to do with space, but that’s an example of our objective—to come up with ideas to benefit the public or develop new products.

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