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Support for UK space sector as new facility offers cheaper and greener rocket testing

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The center allows British companies and academics to test state-of-the-art propulsion engines used to move small satellites in space at speeds that are cheaper than going abroad. It can also test new types of more sustainable propellants such as hydrogen peroxide and liquid oxygen, which are more environmentally friendly in sourcing, storage and combustion.

The new National Space Propulsion Test Facility (NSPTF), based in the Westcott space cluster in the Aylesbury Vale Enterprise Zone, is the only facility in the UK to receive 4 million funding from the British Space Agency. It is one of only three in the world and will create around 60 jobs.

So far, companies have been able to test tiny engines in the UK, but have had to go abroad to test larger engines. This new facility will help elevate Britain’s position as a leading space player by addressing this challenge and providing the resources needed to expand the space industry.

Part of the new national space propulsion test facility

Science Minister Amanda Solloway said:

The better we build, the more we are investing in the most brilliant space scientists, the facilities they work in, and the technology they are creating.

This pioneering facility will support our ambitious space business, performing complex spacecraft engine tests, while creating highly skilled jobs to revitalize the local economy.

The UK space sector is already a leader in satellite propulsion, and the satellite propulsion sector is expected to grow significantly over the next few years, with a growing space manufacturing sector and plans for first launches from UK spaceports in 2022.

The British Space Agency has worked with the European Space Agency, the Scientific and Technical Facilities Commission RAL Space Facility and NAMMO UK to develop this state-of-the-art facility. The site uses groundbreaking technology to test propulsion engines that place spacecraft in orbit in conditions similar to those experienced in space.

This new facility will enable innovations in propulsion technology, as well as cost-effective development and testing of much more powerful engines for interplanetary travel, and advance an important commercial communications satellite market.

Science Minister Amanda Soloway at the NSPTF Opening Ceremony

Rob Selby, vice president of Nammo Space, the company that will operate the equipment, said:

Thanks to this major British government investment, British space can now compete favorably with the world’s best rocket testing facilities. The Nammo team has designed, built and produced this phenomenal state-of-the-art thermal thermal testing facility that is already driving further growth in the UK-based spacecraft propulsion business. We test the engine for our customers worldwide and look forward to more major developments that the NSPTF will enable.

Westcott is recognized as an integral part of the UK’s space sector growth strategy, with its core of well-established companies supporting rocket and satellite-assisted research and development projects.

Westcott Development Manager Nigel MacKenzie said:

Welcome Secretary of Science Amanda Solloway to Westcott. This is another leap forward for Westcott’s development in Buckinghamshire as a center of excellence for space propulsion and related high-tech industries.

Future investments will ensure Westcotts are positioned at the heart of the UK space industry. Over the next decade, Westcott will become the UK’s center for the manufacture of next-generation propulsion systems and small satellites.

Richard Harrington, CEO of Buckinghamshire Local Enterprise Partnership said:

Westcott’s National Space Propulsion Test Facility is a key step towards providing a world-leading hub for the space sector in the heart of Buckinghamshire.

We are excited to support the opening of this new facility in the Enterprise Zone, which opens the next step in the evolution of the Westcott site to attract new business and investment to this world-class center of excellence in space propulsion.

A report on the size and health of the UK space industry released last month shows that the UK space sector is booming. Revenues from the UK space sector increased from 14.8 billion in 2016/17 to 16.4 billion in 2018/19, representing a real growth of 5.7%. Employment increased by 3,200 from 41,900 to 45,100.

How does engine testing work?

The engine is ignited under vacuum with a mechanical pump system that creates a vacuum down to 1.5 millibars in the test cell containing the engine. With an equivalent test altitude of about 140,000 ft, the technology can be considered ready for the space environment.

When firing, the pressure of the engine exhaust smoke is partially restored by a 7-meter long supersonic diffuser. Developed by Reaction Engines, the rocket plume intercooler removes the heat generated by the rocket exhaust plume and allows the vacuum pump to operate and maintain simulated high-altitude conditions. In other words, the intercooler cools the exhaust temperature in excess of 2,000C to less than 50C in 1 second at a distance of less than 1m.

The gas then travels along the vacuum manifold, where it is restored to ambient pressure by the vacuum generating plant’s pump system.

Crucially, testing this range of engines will enable further innovations on the types of orbital-raised and station-maintained engines this facility can test. This is the first step in planning for testing larger engine types.

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