Two satellites ‘the size of a cereal box’ due to be launched from Cornwall this summer could provide Britain with its own spy-from-space capability.
The UK currently relies on imagery from RAF aircraft, as well as US Department of Defense data sharing, to monitor things like Russian troop movements on Ukrainian battlefields.
But officials want to create a constellation of small intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) satellites, so the country isn’t as dependent on other nations.
The cube-shaped mini satellites (“cubesats”) will be launched into space on a Virgin Orbit rocket called LauncherOne, which itself will be launched from a jumbo jet from Spaceport Cornwall, which is part of the airport of Newquay.
Surveillance: Two cereal box-sized satellites due to be launched this summer from Cornwall could give Britain its own spy capability from space. The ‘cubesats’ are represented
The cube-shaped mini satellites (“cubesats”) will be launched into space on a Virgin Orbit rocket called LauncherOne, which itself will be launched from a jumbo jet from Spaceport Cornwall, which is part of the airport from Newquay
HOW VIRGIN ORBIT SENDS SATELLITES INTO SPACE
TO TAKE OFF Cosmic Girl, an adapted Boeing 747, takes off from an aerospace port, initially in California.
ROCKET DEPLOYMENT At a cruising altitude of about 35,000 feet, the chief pilot hits the big red button which releases the rocket from the pylon.
FIRST STAGE BURNING After a 4-second free fall, the first-stage engine, NewtonThree, comes to life, accelerating the rocket to over 8,000 miles per hour. Once its fuel is exhausted, the first stage detaches.
FAIRING SEPARATION With LauncherOne now between 310 and 745 miles above the Earth’s surface, the shroud opens, exposing the payload as it approaches its destination.
SATELLITE DEPLOYMENT Finally, with very precise timing, the second stage ejects the satellite into its final orbit.
BACK TO EARTH The atmospheric drag will eventually bring the second stage back to Earth, where it will burn up in the atmosphere, minimizing the environmental footprint.
Once deployed, the cubesats will provide high-tech imaging sensors, enabling the Ministry of Defense (MoD) to monitor the Earth and its oceans.
They will also be able to monitor radio signals, a capability that has been vital in intercepting conversations between Russian commanders and lower ranks.
The satellites, which are part of the MoD’s so-called ‘Prometheus-2’ mission, are prototypes and will carry out an initial test exercise to see what is possible for Britain in the future.
Weighing 20 pounds and measuring approximately 12 inches long, 8 inches wide and 4 inches deep, they will operate in low Earth orbit, approximately 340 miles above Earth and 30-60 miles away at 17,000 mph .
“Cubesat 1” and “Cubesat 2” will provide a test platform for monitoring radio signals, including GPS and sophisticated imagery.
Cubesat 1 includes a laser detector, a GPS receiver and a hyperspectral imager – which can capture multiple image fragments at different wavelengths of light.
Cubesat 2, on the other hand, includes two optical imaging cameras, a laser range finder and a GPS receiver.
One camera will be fitted with a wide-angle lens for a 180-degree view of the Earth’s surface, with the second camera observing the other Cubesat 1 to support space situational awareness and monitor other objects in orbit around the Earth.
Built by Hampshire-based In-Space Missions Ltd, and designed with Airbus Defense and Space, Prometheus-2 is a collaboration between the MoD and international partners, including the US National Reconnaissance Office (NRO).
The Virgin Orbit Launcher One rocket, pictured in its hangar at Newquay Airport in August last year, will be fitted with a Ministry of Defense observation kit, among other payloads
“Space technology is crucial to the development of Defense capabilities,” Defense Procurement Minister Jeremy Quin previously said.
“The launch of Prometheus-2 represents another significant milestone for our homegrown space program.
“This collaboration with In-Space Missions and Airbus paves the way for the UK to become a more resilient, robust and important global space entity.”
The satellites, which are expected to be launched at an estimated cost of $300,000 (£246,000), will be just one of the payloads aboard LauncherOne when it lifts off from Spaceport Cornwall this summer.
If successful, it will claim the title of the first satellite launch from British soil.
The next launch will involve Virgin Orbit’s carrier plane, a modified Boeing 747 called Cosmic Girl, and LauncherOne, a two-stage orbital launch vehicle nestled in Cosmic Girl’s belly.
Once Cosmic Girl is at a high enough altitude – approximately 35,000 feet – LauncherOne is triggered.
When at orbital altitude, LauncherOne deploys the satellites, which will be catapulted into orbit at 8,000 miles per hour.
Virgin Orbit has already conducted three consecutive successful orbital missions with LauncherOne in 2021 and 2022, the last in January.
However, all three took place from Mojave Air and Space Port, California, so the first one from UK soil is attracting considerable interest.
In the past 16 months since January 2021, LauncherOne has already deployed payloads into space for Virgin Orbit customers, including NASA and the US Department of Defense.
WHAT IS CUBESATS?
A CubeSat is a miniature satellite sent into space.
NASA defines them as a class of nanosatellites that use a standard size and form factor.
Each unit, or U, measures 10cm x 10cm x 10cm (4in x 4in x 4in) and the cubes can be joined together to create larger structures.
These can include 1.5, 2, 3, 6 and even 12U items.
They are often made of off-the-shelf commercial products and are an inexpensive option for space exploration.
CubeSats have a variety of functions. Small satellites are destined for low Earth orbit (LEO) where they perform a number of scientific research functions and explore new space technologies.
Originally developed to teach university students about satellites, CubeSats are now a major commercial technology, providing data on everything from shipping routes to environmental changes.
Each unit, or U, measures 10cm x 10cm x 10cm (4in x 4in x 4in) and the cubes can be joined together to create larger structures. These can include 1.5, 2, 3, 6 and even 12U items