Giant space test chamber will test satellites the size of a minibus

The UK’s space sector has received a major piece of new equipment to help get larger, more complex satellites ready for launch. A 16m long, 98 tonnes space test chamber, amongst the giants of Europe, has been installed in the UK’s National Satellite Test Facility (NSTF) located at Harwell Science and Innovation Campus.

The Large Space Test Chamber will test spacecraft of up to 7 tonnes for the harsh conditions of space including extreme temperatures from -180֯֯C to +100֯֯C. Businesses from the UK and abroad will be able to test spacecraft up to the size of a minibus as well as fleets of shoe box-size satellites.

The chamber can be heated and cooled using nitrogen cooled shroud panels to achieve a temperature range of 95 Kelvin to 373 Kelvin to (-180 ֯C to +100 ֯C) so that satellites can be tested for missions into the chill of deep space or near to the Sun.

Operated by the Science and Technology Facilities Council’s RAL Space and located alongside other test equipment at the NSTF the aim is to enable UK businesses to bid competitively for new contracts and remain a world leader in space technologies.

Commenting on what this means for the UK space sector Dr Joanna Hart, Space Cluster Manager, Harwell Campus said, “Expanding the UK’s satellite testing capabilities is vital to ensuring the UK space sector can continue to grow in strength and numbers. Any space company can use this new state-of-the-art facility, on commercial terms, enabling more UK companies to take on larger scale projects and drive innovation across the sector.”

Matt Fletcher, Head of Environmental Test, RAL Space expanded on this point, “In addition to the current small, medium and large chambers RAL Space offers to the space sector, this new chamber vastly increases our test capacity, allowing much larger space hardware to be tested. It will allow us to test even more of the satellites which serve our everyday life, from telecommunications satellites which transmit our TV signal to the satellites monitoring the health of our planet, right here in the UK.”

The chamber completed a long and complex journey from Italy – transported in sections on six lorries accompanied by police outriders and support vehicles. The convoy from Portsmouth Harbour to Harwell  was one of the largest single road movements the UK has ever seen.

Talking about the complexities of transporting something of this scale safely during a pandemic Sean Stewart, STFC’s National Satellite Test Facility Project Manager commented that, “The installation of the large space test chamber would have been an extraordinary endeavour at the best of times. In the current challenging circumstances, the team worked tirelessly through lockdown, first in Italy and then in the UK, to get the space test chamber into place. The final walls will now go up around the chamber and once complete, the National Satellite Test Facility will play a key role in securing end to-end capability to build, test and launch satellites from the UK.”

Concluding on what this new addition means to the UK, Science Minister Amanda Solloway said, “The UK is a world-leader in space technology and this impressive new chamber, backed by government funding, will significantly bolster our satellite testing capabilities. Importantly, it will ensure that our space industry has the first-class facilities they need to test large, complex spacecraft as we work towards the UK’s first satellite launch.”

Alongside the space test chamber, the NSTF will also offer vibration and pyro-shock equipment, electromagnetic compatibility and antenna measurement system and acoustic testing. It builds on the existing suite of environmental test facilities at RAL Space which include a further 10 space test chambers ranging from 1m – 5m diameter.

The Chamber is due to open at Harwell in 2022 where it will be an integral part of the Harwell Space Cluster.