QinetiQ lands ESA contract with new Belgian plant, aims to grow space business

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BREMEN, Germany — British aerospace company QinetiQ will use a newly expanded factory to build equipment for a European Space Agency heat transfer experiment under a 9 million euro ($10 million) contract, the company announced Nov. 21 during the Space Tech Expo conference here. 

QinetiQ will build hosting facility and experiment modules for ESA’s Heat Transfer Host 2 project at a new 3-million-euro clean room in Kruibeke, Belgium, that the company opened in October. QinetiQ said HOST2 will launch to the International Space Station in the first half of 2023, where it will be operated inside Europe’s Columbus laboratory module. 

ESA’s HOST2 experiment will study how heat transfer is influenced by different surface geometries. 

QinetiQ’s Belgium clean room has roughly 1,100 square meters of space, excluding a mezzanine area. In an interview, Jim Graham, the managing director of QinetiQ’s space business, said the company hopes to use the facility to grow in three areas: small satellite manufacturing, electric propulsion thrusters and docking mechanisms. 

QinetiQ built the European Space Agency’s three Proba Earth observation satellites, launched in 2001, 2009 and 2013, and is a subcontractor to Spanish company Sener on the two Proba-3 satellites. Last year the joint European and Japanese BepiColombo orbiter launched on a seven-year journey to Mercury using four electric thrusters from QinetiQ. 

With the new clean room space, Graham said QinetiQ can build specialized small satellites around 100 kilograms, similar to the first Proba satellites. QinetiQ will also use the facility to further development of its International Berthing and Docking Mechanism, for which it received a 26.6 million euro ESA contract in 2017. 

Graham said QinetiQ is evaluating ways the docking mechanism could be used on spacecraft, the International Space Station and NASA’s lunar Gateway. 

Graham said ESA is one of QinetiQ’s biggest customers. Science missions represent the next best opportunity for QinetiQ to sell more of the T6 thrusters used on BepiColombo, but the company is also assessing commercial use cases, he said. 

QinetiQ claims its T6 thrusters require 10 to 20 times less propellent mass than chemical thrusters.