The first ever United Kingdom (UK) National Space Strategy was published in 2021 and sets out the government’s ambitions for the UK in space, bringing together civil and defence space policy for the first time. Earth Observation (EO) applications and services are identified as a high growth area, highlighting EO data as a priority to tackle climate change challenges.
UK Space Agency has a strong heritage of collaboratively supporting programmes across science, technology and industry. The UK Government supports a number of technology programmes in EO development, including but not limited to the UK Space Agency funded Centre for Earth Observation Instrumentation (CEOI), a consortium led by Airbus Defence and Space in partnership with QinetiQ, University of Leicester and the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory (part of the Science and Technology Facilities Council).
Since 2007, the CEOI has sought to maintain and grow UK capability in EO instrumentation. The CEOI oversees a grant programme which, with parallel investment from industry, funds novel EO instrumentation projects to raise Technology Readiness Levels (TRL) to a level that can contribute to major EO missions. Since 2007, CEOI funding has assisted UK EO technologies to be part of at least 17 mission opportunities across the European Space Agency (ESA), Copernicus, the European Organisation for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites (EUMETSAT), the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and commercial programmes.
Some highlights include:
• Two funded technologies are the basis of ESA Scout missions CubeMap and HydroGNSS
• An on-board calibration system (the Cryogenic Solar Absolute Radiometer - CSAR) that will fly on the TRUTHS high precision climate mission, now in advanced study in ESA
• The mission concepts SEASTAR (oceanography) and WIVERN (wind and rain) are two of the four Earth Explorer 11 candidates selected for Phase 0 study
• Three commercial instruments for maritime surveillance, high-resolution imaging and video, and thermal imaging, are either flying or are at an advanced build stage
In addition to funding instrumentation development, the CEOI runs a range of community building activities to promote close working relationships and knowledge transfer between academia and industry. This includes holding events such as an annual national EO conference; providing advice and guidance to projects teams on technology development and commercialisation; and supporting UK companies to make the best case possible when pursuing a role in EO missions.
The UK Space Agency has also recently established the National Space Innovation Programme (NSIP) to support the development of innovative space projects. It supports projects that may be high risk but have the potential for high returns and a clear target market. Launched in 2020, the programme has so far run two funding opportunities for project teams to advance products, services and technologies that have application in the space sector. In its first year, 27 projects received grants, which were awarded to both industry and academia led project teams across the UK. Several of these projects are focused on developing EO technology, including the development of a novel High Resolution Infrared Sensor payload for heat detection (Global Satellite Vu).
NSIP EO projects include:
• TreeView: Precision Forestry to Tackle Climate Change (The Open University)
• High resolution thermal infrared space telescopes for globally monitoring the energy efficiency of buildings (University of Cambridge)
• Global Lidar Altimetry MISsion: GLAMIS (University of Edinburgh)
• Hyperspectral Microwave Sounder Constellation of Nanosatellites for Climate change And Mitigation (STFC RAL Space)
• GHGWatch (Geospatial Insight)
Rutherford Appleton Laboratory (RAL) Space scientists contribute to and underpin UK EO and international programmes in environmental science through the provision of research expertise, services and facilities in support of the UK science community. RAL Space develop enabling technologies of the future and are delivering missions such as ESA Earth Explorer candidate mission LOCUS Supra-THz mission of Upper Atmosphere, BAROmetric Differential Absorption Radar (BARODAR) mission for surface Air-Pressure measurement from space, and Hyperspectral Microwave Sounders (HYMS).
RAL Enabling Technologies include:
• Schottky diode mixer development a critical technology for heterodyne microwave radiometers, from microwaves up to supra-THz frequencies
• Development of a new generation of closed cycle, miniature space coolers for detectors and sources. These coolers can lower the operating temperatures of heterodyne mixers in EO instruments, which reduces the receiver noise contribution and, in doing so, increases the instrument sensitivity
• Novel techniques to integrate microwave radiometers for EO application. This new technology opens the way for microwave remote sensing from New Space platforms (CubeSats and SmallSats)
• 200 GHz cloud radar (GRaCE) is a ground-based millimetre wave radar built as a technology demonstrator and to establish the scientific benefits of a future space radar
• Mid InfraRed hollow waveguide integration technological developments aim to enable new science in the field of atmospheric studies, EO and astronomy, through new instrumental capabilities, both ground-based and space-based (e.g., in the ESA Scout mission CubeMAP)
• Cold Atoms and Quantum Sensors research and development of the next generation sensors based on the quantum properties of ultra-cold atomic gases
This highlights some of the UK’s EO technology development programmes ensuring the long-term, resilient supply of data and skills needed for economic growth, climate change and science discovery.