Defense Secretary Jeremy Quinn has announced that two Cubesats will be carried on Virgin Orbit’s Launcher One (pictured), taking off horizontally from a modified Boeing 747 aircraft called Cosmic Girl. The mission will allow the UK Department of Defense (MOD) to identify new techniques and algorithms for satellite operation and data processing.
“We put the UK at the forefront of small satellite launches, providing world-leading opportunities for commercial customers and governments in the global marketplace, opening up new opportunities and inspiring current and future generations of British scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs.” said Ian Annette, Deputy Executive Director of the United Kingdom Space Agency.
These satellites demonstrate the strengths of the United Kingdom in the design and construction of satellites. The opportunity to launch from the UK and across Europe for the first time will strengthen our satellite industry, create highly skilled jobs across the country and achieve the key ambition of the National Space Strategy.
Created by Hampshire-based In-Space Missions and designed with Airbus Defense and Space, Prometheus-2 has been described as a collaboration between the Department of Defense and international partners, including the US National Intelligence Agency (NRO).
The two shoebox-sized satellites will provide a test platform for monitoring radio signals, including GPS and complex images, paving the way for a more collaborative and connected space communications system with our allies.
“This is a great example of the strength of international cooperation – a key principle of our defense space strategy,” said Harv Smith, director of space at MOD, vice-marshal of aviation. “Prometheus 2 will provide tremendous value for the UK’s future space program, and thanks to our partners in the National Intelligence Service, this highly capable satellite will launch from British soil this summer. I am very proud of what we have achieved together and this is just the beginning. “
An exact launch date has not yet been announced.
Cubesats will operate in low Earth orbit, about 550 km above the Earth and 50-100 km from each other at 17,000 miles per hour.
Cubesat 1 includes a hyperspectral image, a laser detector and a GPS receiver. The hyperspectral image will capture multiple fragments of photos at different wavelengths of light for higher resolution images. The GPS receiver confirms the exact time and position of the satellite above the area of the Earth to be photographed.
Cubesat 2 includes two optical imaging cameras, a laser rangefinder and a GPS receiver. One camera will be equipped with a wide-angle lens for a 180-degree view of the earth’s surface, while the second camera will monitor the other Cubesat 1 to maintain space situational awareness and allow us to understand what else is circling the Earth.
The plan is to “test new concepts as a guide” in support of constellation Minerva for space-based intelligence and surveillance, this will be through the UK Defense Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl) Hermes Ground Station based in Portsmouth.
“The Prometheus-2 mission, with the first ever-owned Dstl satellites, illustrates decades of cooperation with our international allies and shows how we can best partner with the industry,” said Paul Holinshead, Dstl’s chief executive. “This will deliver critical R&D results and help increase our pool of skilled space personnel to help increase the UK’s ability to deliver space systems in the future.”
Horizontal launches in the United Kingdom
Cornwall is not the only site in the UK that wants to support similar horizontal launches, as provided by Virgin Orbit. We recently reported on the progress of Cosmoport Prestwick towards horizontal launches in 2023 for smaller satellites such as CubeSats.
For these launches, the payload is launched with a rocket into the air from an aircraft – at an appropriate height above a body of water – which in turn means that traditional airport infrastructure can be used. Launches are also less vulnerable to adverse conditions.