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UK Space Agency’s National Space Technology Programme (NSTP) to boost space innovation

The UK has a thriving space industry that generates an income of £14.8 billion [$20.57 billion] each year. The UK Space Agency’s aim is to drive growth into the UK economy by supporting the development of space technology and skills, as embodied in the UK Space, Innovation and Growth Strategy (Space IGS). The UK Space Agency works closely with industry and academia to fund new technologies, boost skills, promote growth and inspire careers in the space sector.

The National Space Technology Programme is a capability programme encouraging the development of space technology in the UK space sector. NSTP offers support by funding industry, academia and other (not for profit) government institutions, who are looking to develop technology and build new capabilities for the UK Space sector. NSTP offers funding opportunities for projects across all ranges, from startup companies to more established industry. The NSTP funds four types of grants, Flagships, Fastracks, Pathfinder and Grants for Exploratory


Since launching in 2011, NSTP has supported 300 projects. Previous successful applicants include Belstead Research Ltd, who improved drag sail methods for removing space debris, and a collaboration between the University of Bristol and Rutherford Appleton Laboratory to track and analyse volcanic ash clouds, which can damage jet engines.


Charles McCausland, Head of Major Projects and Technology Development, UK Space Agency, said: The UK Space Agency has a strong track record of backing early-stage technologies with future potential, and these five projects promise to pave the way for further space innovation. As the UK extends its ambitions for the space sector, early support of this kind could prove decisive in helping us get ahead in an increasingly competitive global environment.


Project types

NSTP grant schemes -overview of key features | Download Scientific Diagram


Earlier Awards

launch of small satellites

MicroLaunch is Thales Alenia Space in the UK’s (TASitUK) potentially game-changing concept for the launch of small satellites (<100kg) into low Earth orbit. The aim is to make cost and turnaround improvements over ten times better than other future small satellite dedicated launchers. This study, funded by the UK Space Agency’s National Space Technology Programme, was carried out between September 2016 and March 2017. It investigated the key microwave rectenna technology required to enable this concept.


The project led by Oxford Space Systems, in collaboration with NanoRacks (USA), explored significant and innovative improvements to the existing OSS AstroTube™ Max (A-Max) boom system, such that a proven, commercially focused technology from NanoRacks, the NREP, can be further enhanced.


New generation of deployable spacecraft structures for the global space industry

The NREP (NanoRacks External Platform) allows customers to undertake various experiments from the International Space Station (ISS), and is currently externally attached in a fixed and static location to the space station. NanoRacks believe the attractiveness of their offering will be greatly enhanced if the NREP’s payloads could be deployed and retracted from the ISS by up to 10 metres. It is proposed variant of the A-Max boom be utilized to provide this capability. With this enhanced market offering, NanoRacks estimates a 25% increase in NREP’s utilization.


Satellite resource management (SRM) for NGSO constellations

With significant growth in bandwidth demands driven by global internet connectivity and the ‘Internet of Things’, a number of NGSO satellite constellations have been proposed by both existing satellite operators and investor-funded startup companies. Trends in the development of these constellations were identified that showed that the requirements for satellite resource management (SRM) for NGSO
constellations will be different to GSO satellites and their conventional payloads. This study analysed and defined requirements for an
effective SRM system for such constellations.


The role of an SRM for NGSO constellations is to generate the planning of the satellites’ resources in mega-constellations and by managing the flexibility and constraints (geostationary and other non-geostationary satellites, consideration of terrestrial systems such as 5G, priority access to spectrum over the equator) in the allocation of resources (beams, frequency plans, connectivity as required).


Optical Fibre Sensor to measure nanometre changes in position

Sometimes we need to measure things moving to a very high accuracy. The LISA Pathfinder mission had to measure the motion of two cubes of gold-platinum alloy with nanometre precision – a length equivalent to a 100,000th of a human hair. Further, these measurements had to be made at low frequency – over thousands of seconds. Making measurements this precisely is particularly difficult on these timescales as everything has a tendency to ‘breath’, and slowly drift. At the University of Glasgow we have successfully designed, built and demonstrated a sensor that uses a an optical fibre to make these kinds of measurements – in fact it is capable of making measurements a hundred times more precisely at higher frequencies.


GNC architecture for low cot rendezvous and docking mission

Proximity flight systems for rendezvous-and- docking (RDV&D), have traditionally been the  domain of large, costly institutional missions which require extremely robust and expensive Guidance, Navigation and Control (GNC) solutions. However, we are now entering into a new and exciting era of space exploitation, with a significant number of new mission applications on the horizon which will require close proximity RDV&D, and/or formation flying, to enable the creation of new space services, and the generation of new commercial and
institutional markets on-orbit. These missions will in turn require lower cost GNC and sensor approaches in order to be commercially competitive whilst still being safety compliant.


The baseline mission concept, used as a focus for the study, was a “co-operative” (i.e. both spacecraft work together) RDV&D mission demonstrator composed of two microsatellites, a “Chaser” spacecraft and a “Target” spacecraft. The Chaser is the master spacecraft, and is responsible for carrying the main sensors and performing the rendezvous manoeuvres including any potential collision avoidance
manoeuvres. The Target spacecraft just maintains a stable attitude for the observations (from the Chaser spacecraft) and the docking phase. The baseline RDV sensor complement on the Chaser spacecraft is comprised of Relative GPS, a small camera and a “Commercial-Off-the-Shelf” LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) payload. The Target spacecraft also contributes its GPS measurements and provides
visual identifiers for the camera on the Chaser spacecraft.


NSTP Recent awards in March 2021

Five UK organisations have been awarded a total of £300,000 [$416,884] from the UK Space Agency to speed up the development of innovative space technology. Recipients include the University of Leeds, which will develop 3D printing methods and liquid-crystal technology, similar to that in our television screens at home, to develop far-infrared sensors for studying climate change and star formation. Another project, led by Rocket Engineering in London, will create a compact propulsion system the size of a house brick for use in nano and small satellites. The engines use electromagnets to enable the satellites to move for in-orbit spacecraft servicing or space debris mitigation.


From observing climate change from space to protecting our satellites from hazardous space debris, these technologies could expand our reach in space and improve life here on Earth. The announcement comes during British Science Week (5 – 14 March), a 10-day programme of thousands of events running throughout the whole of the UK with the aim of celebrating science, engineering, technology and maths, coordinated by the British Science Association and funded by the UK Research and Innovation (UKRI).


LENA Space, Modular Propulsion Engine (MPE) Design Programme, £74,080 [$102,943]

LENA Space, a small company based near Salisbury, is developing a rocket engine for launch vehicles. Called the Modular Propulsion Engine (MPE), the overall development plan is for an off-the-shelf, flight qualified propulsion system to support small launch vehicle programmes. The Pathfinder project will involve detailed design work on the MPE, particularly integrating several previously developed LENA subsystems – including pintle injector, electric drive cryogenic pumps and AM manufactured nozzles – into a single engine.


The University of Leeds, Advanced manufacturing techniques for supra-terahertz optical components, £74,969 [$104,178]

Important gases in our atmosphere, and the clouds between stars are only visible in the terahertz (far-infrared) part of the spectrum — observing them is key to understanding how planets form, and how our climate is changing. Researchers at the University of Leeds and Rutherford–Appleton Laboratories are developing new ways to manufacture specialised terahertz components. They will develop liquid-crystal technology, similar to that in television screens, to produce smart lenses and shutters, and 3D-printing methods to produce ultra-thin lenses and light-filters. This will underpin the first terahertz sensors suitable for use in satellites or compact lab-based instruments.


Archer Technicoat Ltd (ATL), Nb-alloy Additive Manufacture and Iridium coating (NbAMIC), £72,778 [$101,133]

This project aims to develop new spacecraft propulsion technologies that reduce costs and increase current methods’ efficiency. The Oxfordshire-based company will minimise material wastage and increase temperature capabilities by combining 3D-printing, special coating techniques, and an innovative material combination to improve current industry standards in thrust chamber technology. This project is the next step in creating a scalable family of efficiently priced bi- and green-propellant thrusters. Project is being led by Archer Technicoat Ltd (ATL) with Birmingham University’s AMPLab as project partners.


Rocket Engineering, SuperMagdrive, £64,200 [$90,603]

By using new materials and cooling systems, SuperMagdrive, which is the size of a can of coffee, will increase magnetic field density, allowing spacecraft to manoeuvre more efficiently in orbit. The compact propulsion system is designed for nano and small satellites and aims to target spacecraft customers interested in space debris mitigation and on-orbit spacecraft servicing. Magdrive is partnered with Rocket Engineering Limited (providing systems engineering and project management expertise) and is supported by Oxford University’s Department of Materials.


Spottitt, Remote Monitoring of UK Waste & Mineral Sites, £50,296 [$69,892]

The Oxfordshire-based project will explore the technical and commercial viability of a low cost, fully automated monitoring service for waste and mineral sites using satellite imagery. Current processes rely almost entirely on physical site visits to monitor activity and changes. Satellite monitoring offers a more cost-effective and accurate alternative which can ensure activities are more frequently monitored, thus reducing the risk of long-term environmental damage. The project will first monitor waste and mineral sites in the UK with a look to ultimately roll out the system globally.


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