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South East firms secure big slice of £9m space agency funding for Earth observation

15 May 2024
The Business Magazine article image for: South East firms secure big slice of £9m space agency funding for Earth observation

The UK Space Agency has allocated £9 million in funding to projects which are working to enhance the UK’s Earth observation technologies – with the majority based in the South East.

Delivered by the Centre for Earth Observation Instrumentation (CEOI), the funding will support 12 projects that seek to monitor Earth’s atmosphere and measure critical emissions such as carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrogen dioxide.

The instruments under development could give a clearer picture of where activities and incidents producing high levels of emissions – such as wildfires or inefficient farming techniques – are taking place, enabling decision-makers to coordinate more effective responses.

Companies set to benefit include Surrey Satellite Technology, Oxford’s Thales Alenia Space, and In-Space Missions in Hampshire.

Space minister Andrew Griffith said: “This exciting new generation of satellite instruments will play a key part in our efforts to tackle climate change, cementing UK leadership in Earth observation while helping to attract more private investment into this fast-growing sector.”

The UK has so far pledged £314 million to Earth observation programmes as part of a record £1.8 billion investment in the European Space Agency (ESA).

Beth Greenaway, head of earth observation and climate at the UK Space Agency, added: “Satellites play a vital role in monitoring emissions, weather patterns and other environmental factors, using a variety of sensors and instruments that return information to Earth.

“Indeed, some of the information can only be collected from space.”

The name which pops up the most in the latest round of government funding is RAL Space, run by the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) at Harwell Campus in Oxfordshire.

Among its projects is CAITDM – or Cold Atom Interferometry Thermosphere Drag Measurement – which has received £1 million to prepare a cold-atom accelerometer which would precisely measure the spatial and temporal fluctuations of the upper atmosphere.

The organisation will work with the University of Nottingham and Metamorphic Additive Manufacturing to build a fully functional breadboard to demonstrate the concept, as well as developing the electronics control and laser technology on board.

RAL is also leading on the £2.5 million-backed SOLSTICE (Solar Occultation Limb Sounding Transformative Instruments for Climate Exploration) project to improve monitoring of changes in the atmosphere, with support from Bright Ascension and Open Cosmos.

SOLSTICE will rely on two instruments working together – HIROS, a thermal infrared spectrometer providing information on atmospheric transmission of gases, and HSDI, an imager for water vapour, aerosols and air pressure.

Another RAL initiative will be to further develop a 3.5 THz receiver for the Keystone mission, which seeks to study the currently poorly understood mesosphere and lower thermosphere of the atmosphere.

For that, it’s been awarded £250,000 in partnership with the University of Leeds.

And finally, RAL is heading up the £65,000 High-accuracy Magnetometer for Space Weather Instrumentation (HMSWI) project to bring together the functions of two types of magnetometer into one instrument – with support from the British Geological Survey, University of Strathclyde and Iota Technology.

This will allow for cost savings, improved data accuracy and an array of new applications for things like space weather and Earth observation.

Two more projects at Harwell Campus have received government funding – one of which is CITISCAN, led by Thales Alenia Space with support from University of Leicester.

The £1.15 million initiative seeks to develop two new instruments to measure aerosols like nitrogen dioxide in urban areas at a high resolution and in near real-time.

There’s also the £250,000 Umbrella Radiation Monitor of Harwell-based Umbrella Space Science, supported by BGHTECH Ltd and Leese SPM.

Together they’ll build a novel instrument which would map Earth’s radiation environment in-situ and in real time, which is essential for image-based satellites and their background calibrations.

Moving on, Surrey Satellite Technology (SSTL) in Guildford has won funding for two of its own projects.

The firm received £900,000 alongside Pixalytics to develop a Hyperspectral Chroma-D Instrument (HERCHI) which would measure carbon emissions and air quality by targeting certain greenhouse gas molecules in the atmosphere.

They’ll look to produce a breadboard model of a camera and perform some basic characterisation as part of its technological readiness-raising activities.

SSTL also leads a £250,000 initiative to investigate novel uses for HydroGNSS, an ESA satellite mission which will examine methods of gaining global navigation satellite system (GNSS) altimetry.

It’ll be working alongside the University of Nottingham and National Oceanography Centre in Southampton. 

Elsewhere in the county, Surrey AI Imaging and Blue Sky Imaging have won £75,000 for the EO-APU project, which seeks to develop a prototype for an AI-driven EO processing unit.

It’s hoped this unit will eventually make its way on board satellites to pre-analyse, enhance and/or sort data to ensure that what gets sent back to Earth is more usable and valuable.

And finally, over in Hampshire, In-Space Missions is supporting Super-Sharp Space Systems on a £900,000 initiative to prototype an unfolding space telescope for a small satellite platform.

This self-aligning infrared space telescope would produce maps which can identify activities with high carbon emissions, as well as pinpoint wildfires and improve crop irrigation.

Nicolas Leveque, director of the CEOI, concluded: “This additional funding from the UK Space Agency demonstrates its continued support for the development of high-end remote-sensing technologies.

“These technologies will fill many gaps in our observing capabilities and help better understand some of the more complex processes driving the Earth climate and environment.

“This funding round will act as an accelerator, bringing the launch of new instruments forward by several years. 

“We also welcome the responsiveness of the research, academic and industrial community, who have put together ambitious work plans to match the level of investment.”

Born and raised in Berkshire, Dan fell into journalism after completing his bachelor’s degree in English at UCL.

Writing for The Business Magazine and local Biz News sites has given him the opportunity to chat with all manner of small business owners and share their success stories with a wider audience.

Outside of work, Dan enjoys live music, board games and quiz shows, and is making a slow but persistent effort to learn Spanish.

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