The UK Space Agency has announced plans to launch its first satellite – if it can find the right spaceship to catch a lift from.
The tiny UKube-1 will carry a variety of scientific experiments when it eventually gets off the ground later this year.
The project will see the agency take a leap into launching cubesats – a type of relatively cheap, mini-satellite for space research which has a volume of little more than one litre, a mass of around 1.3kg.
It also marks a significant departure for UKSA, formed less than a year ago from the British National Space Centre, which had focused on supplying European Space Agency with parts and expertise for a variety of missions.
Head of communications Matt Goodman said: ‘We’re still in discussions with potential launch providers for UKube-1, and are working hard to find a launch option for the satellite.
‘Since cubesats tend to “piggy-back” on larger payloads during a launch, finding an opportunity with the right orbital configuration is not straightforward.’
Despite its relatively small budget, UKSA hopes to become a much bigger player in the industry, launching several more satellites in the years to come.
Agency head David Williams said: ‘The idea of cubesat is that we see it as a series with a launch every year or maybe two years allowing the sort of people that wouldn’t normally get access to space to run experiments in it.
‘We’d like to see this being an ongoing programme because it gives university groups, and even school groups and amateur groups, the opportunity to test fly equipment. It also gives industry the opportunity to test fly and to develop ideas on bits and pieces of electronics.’
UKSA is also involved in another ambitious project named Skylon, which is an ‘unpiloted, reusable spaceplane intended to provide inexpensive and reliable access to space’, according to the British firm Reaction Engines, which is hoping to build the new craft.
The project got the green light from the European Space Agency in May last year. Although technologically possible, the project’s major stumbling block appears to be cost.
Mr Williams said: ‘We’re trying to work with [the team] to work out how they can raise the necessary finance and whether government should have any involvement in it in the future.
‘It’s going to be an expensive programme, several billion pounds over quite a long period, and the question is which industries wish to be involved, how UK should it be, how European should it be, should it be an international project?’ he added. ‘The idea of a true single-stage-to-orbit plane is very novel.’