National Satellite Test Facility welcomes Airbus

Harwell’s National Satellite Test Facility (NSTF), the UK’s new £116m centre for testing large, next-generation satellites, will soon welcome Airbus Defence and Space UK as its first customer.

STFC RAL Space will operate the cathedral-sized facility which allows companies to test whether satellites will withstand the brutal conditions of space travel. It features the UK’s largest vacuum test chamber, where satellites the size of a double decker bus will be exposed to extremes of hot and cold for months at a time, and a vibration facility that replicates the conditions of a rocket launch.

Signing the inaugural contract in front of the vacuum chamber’s giant doors, Dr Sarah Beardsley, Director of RAL Space, said: “It’s hard not to come into the NSTF and be awed by the sheer size and scale of what we’ve built. It really is the facility that the UK space industry have needed for some time.

“Airbus has long been one of our closest partners and have been central to helping us get the NSTF ready, so we’re delighted that they’ll be the first to put the new facility through its paces.”

The first satellite to be tested at the NSTF will be Skynet 6A, the latest payload in the UK Ministry of Defence’s secure military communication programme.

Currently under construction at Airbus, the satellite is due to launch in 2025 aboard Space X’s Falcon 9 rocket.​

Richard Franklin, Managing Director of Airbus Defence and Space UK, said: “SKYNET 6A is designed and manufactured at our Stevenage and Portsmouth sites and will undergo its entire testing campaign at the new National Satellite Test Facility. It is fitting that the facility’s first testing contract is for Britain’s’ next generation SKYNET 6A, which will provide critical, secure-communications capability for our armed forces and will help further extend the UK’s space ecosystem and capability.”

Plans for the NSTF began in 2015, when a Facilities Gap Study run by the UK Space Agency found that there was a critical need for a single, central large-scale testing site based in the UK that gave companies an alternative to similar facilities in the USA and Europe.

Built with funds from UKRI’s Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund, the site includes an imposing electromagnetic chamber that features 44,000 inwardly pointing foam spikes, and an acoustic test facility capable of producing 146 decibels – far louder than the loudest rock concert.

The facilities will be commissioned during the second half of 2023, with the target of being fully operational by spring 2024.

Ian Annett, Deputy CEO at the UK Space Agency, said: “The National Satellite Test Facility (NSTF) is a significant addition to the UK’s growing space infrastructure that will improve the support available for companies across the breadth of the UK space industry, which employ thousands of people across the country.  

“The brand new facility, the first customer of which will be Airbus Defence and Space, will also help attract new businesses of all shapes and sizes to Harwell and the UK. This will catalyse investment and accelerate the development of new technologies for decades to come – from advanced satellite manufacturing to secure communications, navigation and Earth observation.” ​

Dr Alan Partridge, STFC Executive Director of Large Scale Facilities and Head of STFC Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, said: “This is an incredibly important moment for UKRI and STFC. The National Satellite Testing Facility is a cornerstone of our work to ensure the UK’s place as a world leader in Space science and technology. 

“Through partnerships such as this with internationally recognised companies like Airbus we are laying a strong foundation for our burgeoning space sector and creating the conditions for scientific innovation and economic growth for years to come.”​

UKSA’s Ian Annett (L), RAL Space’s Matt Fletcher and Airbus’s Richard Budd (R) at the contract ceremony in front of the NSTF’s large space test chamber