To infinity and beyond: Yorkshire in space

Last month, the world held its breath as a washing machine sized space probe bounced above the surface of a dark and icy comet some 320 miles from here. When news broke of Philae’s successful landing – albeit under the shadow of a cliff – history was made.

In outer space.
In outer space.

But we do not have to look to distant comets to see the benefits of space technologies. Back here on Earth, you rely on satellites every day. They inform your weather forecasts, direct your satnav and power global telecommunications. Long gone are the days of vainglorious exploration; today space technologies have real commercial applications.

“Space has not just potential but practical value today,” says the Government’s ‘Great Eight Technologies’ report. “We already have a strong and growing space business.” As a nation we produce around forty percent of the world’s small satellites and one quarter of its telecommunications satellites; we win space contacts from Europe and across the world.

At the University of York, researchers are exploring how mobile phone networks can use a new type of ‘pseudo-satellite’ to transmit 4G mobile signals. Unlike orbiting satellites, these new high altitude platforms float 22km up in the stratosphere where they can improve the coverage and capability of communications services. Quick to deploy from the ground, they are ideal for re-establishing telecommunications in disaster zones or for delivering extra capacity during large events such as the Olympics.

Yorkshire is particularly strong in developing satellite-based environmental monitoring. The University of Leeds, for example, is working with the UK and European space agencies to develop a satellite-mounted compact terahertz frequency laser to measure oxygen and other important atoms at the top of the Earth’s atmosphere. These atoms play a key role in monitoring global warming and its causes, but are very difficult to observe using current techniques. The terahertz laser’s unique potential in this area could not only be used to significantly improve climate models on Earth, but could also improve our understanding of the atmospheres of other planets.

The University of Leeds was also awarded £5 million by the UK Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) earlier this year to host and lead two national centres for studying the Earth from space: the Centre for the Observation and Modelling of Earthquakes, Volcanoes and Tectonics (COMET), and the Centre for Polar Observation & Modelling (CPOM). Both centres are already providing astounding results, with COMET scientists analysing ESA’s Sentinel-1A satellite observations of the earthquake that struck California in August. The analysis identified the fault responsible for the earthquake – a fault that had not previously been considered particularly hazardous.

Meanwhile, Leeds and CPOM scientists have used the Sentinel-1A and CryoSat satellites to observe how glaciers and ice sheets will change as our climate warms up. This includes the melting of one of the largest ice caps on Earth, Austfonna, on Norway’s Svalbard archipelago, and the Antarctic ice sheet, found to be losing 159 billion tonnes of ice each year – twice as much as when it was last surveyed.

Scientists at the University of Sheffield are also using satellites to monitor the environment. They recently monitored an iceberg the size of Manhattan and their work is helping to predict how glaciers and ice-sheets will change as our climate warms up.

But ice is not the only concern: forests are also under threat. Sheffield scientists are playing a leading role in a European mission that will monitor changes to Earth’s forests using the ‘BIOMASS’ satellite. The mission, which is set to launch in 2019, will produce the first accurate maps of forests from space.

Complementary work at York is developing methods for monitoring how industrial activity affects the distribution of organic chemicals through the atmosphere.

Alongside these clear environmental and commercial applications, researchers demonstrate incredible innovation as they continue to explore the “final frontier”.

Researchers at Sheffield are developing autonomous space robots to perform space station repairs. And a chemist at Leeds collaborated in the analysis and interpretation of observations made with NASA’s MAVEN spacecraft that is in orbit around the planet Mars.

Across at York, computer scientists are developing radar signals to explore the surface terrain of distant planets. Their work has helped scientists to understand how particular surfaces scatter radar beams.

Between 2004 and 2013 the UK published 85,000 patents for space related products – and the rate of applications is increasing faster than in any other field. With its broad portfolio of space-based research, Yorkshire can be proud of its important contribution to the UK’s stellar performance.