How County Durham is key in the UK’s space race

BEHIND each billionaire’s race to commercialise space travel, set up Planet B on Mars or bring rapid internet connections to remote areas that don’t currently have wires in the ground, lies a team of innovators and engineers who sweat the small stuff, ensuring tech works from the ground up.

Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson are separately trying to launch low orbit satellites, but the North-East could be an unsuspecting partner in each of their ventures.

“It is quite an exciting field with that of SpaceX and Starlink, and Amazon,” says Steve Clements, chief executive of aXenic. “I expect they’ll hear about us from our satellite manufacturers.”

Sedgefield-based aXenic is a space technology – or SpaceTech – company that builds specific parts for satellites to enable aerospace communications.

With a background in fibre, Mr Clements and his team have created an optical add-on for communication between airborne satellites and down on the ground.

In Earthly fibre optics, beams of light must turn on and off rapidly, transferring the “zeros and ones” of binary code across the globe. Lasers, however, cannot move that fast, so telecommunications companies use a part – the optical modular – that can, covering the light on and off to pass on the data.

“We were previously working with Airbus to bring what fibre has done on the ground, inter-continental connection, to locations in the sky. The large company we were at wasn’t interested in chasing satellites, so we spun out from them. This was just over four years ago,” Mr Clements says.

“Sending a laser between satellites is not hard but we need to turn the signal off and on in the same way to transmit data. We make the part that allows that to happen, which also turns out to be not only the smallest and fastest, but also the lightest. On satellites, your weight and size are really important.”

The current perception of satellites sees them as large objects orbiting far from Earth, but the market has shifted and small satellites have emerged for lower Earth orbit.

Elaine Scott, innovation development manager at the Satellite Applications Centre of Excellence, says: “These are much smaller satellites, like ten by ten, because they don’t need as much functionality. They are cheaper to produce and to launch.”

The Satellite Applications Centre of Excellence is an organisation

set up to stimulate the space and satellite sector in the North-East, and is based in NETPark alongside aXenic. The Satellite Applications Centre is run by Catapult, a government initiative with funding to help businesses excel in specific niches.

When the organisation first launched six years ago, there were very few companies working in SpaceTech in the region, but today Ms Scott works with at least 20 different companies “and there are more using this application”.

“There is more going on in the North-East than people realise, and the more people realise, the more we can collaborate,” she says.

The Satellite Applications Centre has supported companies in raising nearly £9m of funding, collectively so far, to develop technology and commercial opportunities in space.

Stuart Martin, CEO of Satellite Applications Catapult, says: “The North-East is a dynamic environment with a growing ecosystem of space companies finding new ways to use space technology.

“Working with the UK Space Agency, we continue to invest in the region through our North East Centre of Excellence, which allows us to work with local communities, business and academics to enable the development of new satellite applications and solutions.”

Mancunian Gareth Taylor studied at Newcastle University and went on to do a PHD on Reagan’s Star Wars Program before joining Reyrolle, the

engineering firm in Gateshead, where he was tasked to find innovative, fringe technologies.

Today, his Sedgefield-based company Evince manufactures artificial diamonds to support satellite thrust, proposition and communication.

“For the last 70 years, almost everything has been built on silicon. If you take someone on the forefront of that and transport them to now, they would recognise everything we have. All innovation has been put into making things smaller and faster – but it’s not new,” he says.

Read the full article on The Northern Echo.

Gareth Taylor of Evince Technology with a Diamond Electron Source in the company's laboratory at NETPark in Segefield, County Durham. Photograph: Stuart Boulton.

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