Left: RAL Space R100 building Credit: STFC RAL Space | Right: Professor Chris Mutlow Credit: STFC RAL Space

Welcome from Professor Chris Mutlow

What an unusual year 2020 has been, it certainly wasn’t the year that any of us had planned, but I believe the whole UK space sector can be rightly proud of how we have responded, adapted, and what we have achieved.

This year our highlights are full of hope and excitement for what the future will bring. From better data for our community, to new instruments to support weather forecasting, and new investment in space weather monitoring. We’re working to put the tools in place to protect vital infrastructure the UK needs for the future.

My team have been busy, not just supporting the UK space community, but also growing it with the addition of a new spin-out company based on our technology research.

As a positive indicator for the health of the space industry, our space test facilities are as busy as ever and work continues apace readying the National Satellite Test Facility for future larger, more complex spacecraft, as well as for testing constellations of smaller satellites.

As we look to the future, we’re eagerly anticipating the launch of the Webb Telescope. The European Mid Infra-Red Instrument (MIRI) left our clean rooms in 2012, and after launch our team will be helping MIRI keep its cool as it starts work observing the early universe.

One of my personal highlights has been seeing how our team has risen to the many challenges, both personal and at work, that this year has presented. Not only do they continue to be innovative, creative and dedicated but they have also continued to inspire and deliver our programme with enthusiasm. I invite you to scroll through and to hear their voices for yourself.


Transforming the future of weather forecasting with smaller, faster, more accurate technology

Extreme weather events are on the rise, increasing in intensity and severity (i). With most catastrophic weather events taking place in a matter of hours and the consequent losses running into billions of pounds, the need for accurate, rapid weather forecasting has never been more critical.

With resolution four times higher than existing sounder technology, and a hardware footprint 50 fold smaller, the first of its kind, miniature HYperspectral Microwave Sounder (HYMS) currently being developed at RAL Space will fit on a nano-satellite and looks set to transform the future of weather forecasting.

Photo: Super Typhoon Trami captured from the International Space Station. Credit: ESA/A.Gerst, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO

Tackling some of the biggest challenges facing our planet through our Earth observation projects

Researchers at RAL Space are developing new mission concepts, technologies and data services to help scientists understand some of Earth’s most pressing issues.


Sharing expertise to make environmental science data more widely accessible

OVERVIEW: CEDA are working with the UK government to provide access to Analysis Ready Data (ARD) for environmental monitoring.

THE CHALLENGE: The Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) working with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’ Earth Observation Centre of Excellence identified the need for tools and services to enable rapid analysis of Earth observation data in support of decision-making across the nations of the UK.

They needed a large quantity of Sentinel-1 and 2 data to be standardised and pre-processed into data products in a common form ready for analysis, thus reducing duplicated effort and the potential for inconsistencies in data preparation.

THE SOLUTION: CEDA are providing access to processing for Scotland and Northern Ireland and archival facilities to enable the creation of ARD from the Sentinel-1 and 2 missions for the UK.

JASMIN, the data intensive supercomputer, makes it easier to access by providing a large centralised store, the CEDA Archive, to host and disseminate standardised, pre-processed data products to the UK public sector.

THE OUTCOME: CEDA now holds 61 TB of this Sentinel ARD which is increasing by roughly 2.5 TB per month and covers England, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

ARD is already being used by the public sector for habitat mapping, monitoring forest change and crop mapping. It is estimated that access to ARD products could save up to 70% of project time.

CEDA are adding the ARD into the Satellite Data Finder so that users can search for products over areas of interest.

Ulric Wilson, Co-Team Leader, Digital and Data Solutions, JNCC said:

“JASMIN’s huge interactive and batch computing environment has allowed us to scale up our processing workflows for Sentinel-1 and Sentinel-2 Analysis Ready Data. JNCC are helping public sector partners develop applications based on the ARD in the CEDA Archive using JASMIN’s cloud computing facilities. Direct access to the shared archive of ARD allows partners to focus resources on innovative analyses, rather than low level data preparation, including landscape monitoring and change detection, crop mapping, managed burning and wildfire extent.”

Photo: JASMIN data analysis facility. Credit: STFC

Contributing to the future of space exploration

RAL Space champions early careers opportunities for our staff and for the space sector more widely. STFC has an active programme for graduates and industrial placement students and is signed up to the Technician Commitment as well as working with space sector partners to help create a Level 4 Space Engineer apprenticeship standard.

Dr Sarah Beardsley, Head of Space Engineering and Technology in RAL Space, reflects on early careers development.

Stepping towards the stars with the Webb Telescope

The long awaited Webb Telescope is due to launch in 2021. RAL Space, working with the Principal Investigator in our sister site, STFC’s UK Astronomy Technology Centre, have had a long involvement in the Mid Infra-Red Instrument (MIRI) on board.

Webb Telescope in the clean room. Credit: Northrop Grumman
MIRI undergoing thermal tests at RAL Space. Credit: STFC RAL Space


Connecting and supporting the UK space weather community

Without any mitigations in place, a major space weather event could cost the UK £15 billion (ii). STFC and the Natural Environment Research Council are connecting research in academia to operations at the UK Met Office through the SWIMMR (Space Weather Instrumentation, Measurement, Modelling and Risk) programme. This investment is facilitating significant improvements in the UK’s monitoring and forecasting capabilities for space weather through the development of new instruments, models and services alongside an innovative framework for wider international collaboration.

Simon Machin, Met Office Space Weather Programme Manager said:

“The exciting SWIMMR programme forms the bedrock of our development over the next few years and will make a great contribution to the safety and wellbeing of our national interests, whilst putting out a strong and positive message about the exploitation of world leading science in the UK.”

Photo 1: The Aurora Borealis. Photo 2: Magnetic loops on the Sun. Credit: Solar Dynamics Observatory/NASA

Meet our team

Testing to the extremes

MTG assembly and the 5m thermal vacuum chamber at RAL Space. Credit: STFC RAL Space

Despite the test facilities being shut down for several months in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, our teams have been busy keeping as many projects on track as possible. The dynamics team experienced only 10% fewer test days than 2019 while also adding pyroshock to their capabilities. 16 different projects were tested in our thermal vacuum chambers and our cleanrooms housed a variety of projects for major international missions.

Construction of the National Satellite Test Facility continued throughout 2020. The exterior of the build was completed and several major pieces of test equipment were delivered, including the Large Space Test Chamber during the severest period of lockdown in England.

The National Satellite Test Facility. Credit: STFC RAL Space


Commercialising research to improve connectivity

OVERVIEW: A new spin-out company, Atheras Analytics, has been established thanks to research undertaken at RAL Space.

CHALLENGE: High Throughput Satellite (HTS) systems will provide the backbone for satellite-based 5G data services. To meet increasing demands for fast data transmission they will need to use higher frequency bands which are more susceptible to weather outages.

SOLUTION: RAL Space scientists have used weather and satellite signal data from the Chilbolton Observatory and other measurement sites across Europe to develop an AI-based algorithm that predicts and manages weather outages across multiple satellite gateways.

OUTCOME: This will enable operators of HTS systems to significantly reduce capital investment in their gateway networks and to optimise the operation of their networks to ensure that high network availabilities are always achieved.

Atheras Analytics will exploit this research and commercialise it for the good of the UK economy.

John Yates, Director of Atheras Analytics said:

“The research undertaken by RAL Space during the last four years will give us a significant first-to-market advantage in delivering this technology to the High Throughput Satellite operators. We hope to continue working with RAL Space in the future to provide similar research at even higher frequencies in order to “future-proof” our technology.”

Photo: 25m dish at the Chilbolton Observatory. Credit: STFC/ Chris Madden

Delivering impactful engagement in a virtual world

In 2020 we adapted our outreach and engagement activities to be delivered online, reaching more than 31,000 people. Between May and June 2020, 87% of parents said a child in their household had been home-schooled because of the coronavirus pandemic (iii). Our ambassadors and outreach partners enabled us to connect with young people virtually through art competitions, online talks and citizen science projects. We have been able to reach a more diverse audience across the country in a more inclusive way.


(i) 2020 State of Climate Services. World Meterological Organisation; 2020

(ii) Oughton, E.J., Hapgood, M. et al. (2018) A Risk Assessment Framework for the Socioeconomic Impacts of Electricity Transmission Infrastructure Failure Due to Space Weather: An Application to the United Kingdom. Risk Analysis. Vol.39. Issue 5. p1022-1043. https://doi.org/10.1111/risa.13229

(iii) Coronavirus and homeschooling in Great Britain: April to June 2020, Office for National Statistics, 2020