British space industry: a voyage to a campus in Oxford, many light years from here

From studying stardust to probing the origins of the solar system, to space ports and satellites, a science park in Harwell is the hub of a booming British space industry. Margareta Pagano reports 

On the computer screen in front of me are dust particles from the Wild 2 comet – a giant snowball of dirty ice and rock that is currently hurtling through deep space some  242 million miles away.

The dust was harvested from the comet’s coma– the envelope around its nucleus – by an Aerogel package taken up into space on Nasa’s Stardust probe more than a decade ago. The Aerogel – the lightest solid known to man and made of foamed glass – trapped around a million bits of dust that were then dropped back down to earth, in Utah, in an aluminium canister for scientists to ponder the origin of life.

Now the stardust is here in the UK on a screen at Harwell – a campus based on an old RAF airfield not far from Oxford. Konstantin Ignatyev, a beamline scientist, can show me the dust because he’s using light that is 10,000 times more powerful than a normal microscope – and 10 billion times brighter than the sun.

We are sitting in his tiny laboratory next to “beamline 18” – one of 23 operating inside this vast silvery-grey machine that is shaped like a doughnut and is as big as Wembley Stadium, with metal gangways criss-crossing miles of intricate steel piping around a vast central cylinder. 

Welcome to Diamond Light Source, the UK’s only synchrotron and one of just 50 in the world. It cost the UK taxpayer, together with Wellcome Trust, around £500m to build and is one of the most advanced scientific facilities in the world, putting the UK at the forefront of pioneering research. 

The reason Wild 2’s dust is visible is that the synchrotron is a giant microscope. At the centre of the machine is a particle accelerator – which acts like the cathode ray tubes found in old TV sets and speeds up electrons through sequences of magnets until they almost reach the speed of light. These light beams are then bounced off into individual laboratories, stationed around the ring for scientists to study anything from unknown viruses to new vaccines to ancient paintings, as well as stardust.

And the synchrotron’s light is shedding light on the origins of the solar system. By using Mr Ignatyev’s beamline, John Bridges of Leicester University has established that the stardust contains magnetite, suggesting that comets at the beginning of the solar system, 4.5 billion years ago, were far more complex, active bodies than previously thought and contained water that reacted with the comet’s minerals. Indeed, the water in our inner solar system, like that on our planet, may have been delivered by comets.

Since opening nearly a decade ago, the synchrotron’s business has boomed: more than 7,000 researchers from academia and industry use the beamlines for their experiments, helped by 500 specialist staff. 

How gravitational waves work

Diamond is not the only jewel on the 700-acre Harwell site, from which bombers took off for the D Day landings. Owned by the UK Atomic Energy Authority, it is privately managed as a science park with around 200 public and private organisations  based here – 60 of which are focused on space exploration.

 Around 4,500 of the country’s top academics, industrialists and investors work here and there are plans for hotels and housing. A few miles away is the Culham Science Centre, where the UK’s main fusion research centre is based and where Alan Bond is working on his Skylon space plane.

 No  wonder lunch at the staff canteen is said to be explosive. Barbara Ghinelli, head of business development and my space guide, says: “The canteen is where it all happens when these great brains get to meet and chat. It’s called the Harwell effect.” 

Known as the UK’s space gateway, it is the closest Europe has to a Silicon Valley for space. It’s home to RAL Space, Britain’s leading space research centre, which is funded by the Government,  the European Space Agency and the Satellite Applications Catapult.

From the private sector are giants such as De Beers, Lockheed Martin, Airbus and Thales, as well as younger companies like Oxford Space Systems – which is working on structures for the new generation of smaller satellites known as cubesats and microsats – and Insect Research Systems, a bedbug detection appliance that reapplies technologies from the Rosetta mission and is now used in hotels.

There’s more to come, with Dr Ghinelli saying the UK’s space industry is ready for lift-off: “The Government wants the sector to grow to £40bn by 2030 – a tenth of the global market. That ambition looks achievable as the space sector has grown by 8 per cent on average each year over the past decade. 

“In 2014 it was worth around £11.8 bn, and grew double-digits last year. There are about 37,000 direct jobs and 100,000 indirect.”

She adds: “Much of this growth will come from Harwell’s companies, most of which are involved in downstream value-added technologies such as satellite communications – where the UK excels. There’s also big potential in the agritech, transport and healthcare sectors, where space technology is being applied.”

The next leap is Britain’s own space port: “UK companies are now looking seriously at sub-orbital space tourism, micro-gravity services and launching small satellites which are affordable. The Government will decide on where the space port should be located – somewhere on the British coast – later this year.”

From stardust, Dr Ghinelli takes me to peer under water. Across the road from Diamond is the Satellite Applications Catapult, where, on a wall-sized screen, satellite images pick out vividly coloured blooms of jellyfish in the seawater around the British coast. EDF uses these images for detection after both its reactors at the Torness nuclear power station were shut down a few years ago when jellyfish swam into the plant and blocked the cooling water filters.

From jellyfish, we move to illegal fishing. In the room next door, the Catapult operates a Dr No style wall-sized dashboard showing a map of the world illuminated by thousands of coloured lights flashing on the seas; the different colours represent most of the world’s ships. 

Working together with the Pew Charitable Trust, the satellite imaging allows technicians to interpret which ships are legally registered and which are not. By isolating those that are not registered, Pew then goes hunting – and catching – the illegal ships. 

A stone’s throw from here is an enormous, and brand new, hangar-type structure. This is the HQ of RAL Space – the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory – the queen bee of Britain’s space exploration programme, involved in more than 200 missions.

RAL’s boss, Chris Mutlow, says the centre’s expertise ranges from storing climate satellite data in one of the world’s biggest data-storage systems, to predicting space weather , to satellite technology. It was RAL’s engineers who came up with the Urthecast cameras used on the International Space Station to take those magnificent pictures of Major Tim Peake looking back at Earth.

Inside the hangar there are rooms the size of squash courts for testing equipment. Two purpose-built, five- metre wide testing chambers work like cocktail shakers to test whether satellites, and their equipment, can survive the thrust of going into space.The chambers can cope with temperatures ranging from minus 180C to plus 150C. 

The top priority for Dr Mutlow is working out how to deal with orbital debris, or space junk – one of the biggest problems faced by space exploration. He says the UK is pioneering systems to bring satellites safely back to earth but also to monitor the threats that could disrupt or degrade our space infrastructure. Or – who knows? – incoming space ships. 

And if there are aliens? Well, their first port of call would most likely be Harwell – to find out what we know about them.

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