U.K. Air Chief Marshal Sir Stephen Hillier speaks during a November 2016 media event for Invincible Shield, an interoperability exchange at Osan Air Base, South Korea. ( Credit: U.S. Air Force/Senior Airman Dillian Bamman)

LONDON – The U.K.’s Royal Air Force is exploring the possibility of using constellations of cubesats and other mini-satellites to increase the military’s space capabilities and improve resilience, according Air Chief Marshall Sir Stephen Hillier.

Speaking at the Air Power Association’s Defence Space 2018 conference here May 21, Hillier said the cost-effective technology with its short development cycles would enable the military to always take advantage of the latest technological developments, unlike the traditional slow-paced military satellite projects.

“Resilience, efficiency and rapid capability development and deployment of new space capabilities are at heart of our thinking,” he said.

“The prospect of cost-effective constellations of small satellites being built, launched and replaced quickly is hugely exciting, providing us with the resilience that we seek.”

He added the Royal Air Force even envisions a large constellation of 1-kilogram cubesats.

Technicians at SSTL work with the Carbonite-2 satellite in late 2017. Credit: SSTL via Twitter
Technicians at SSTL work with the Carbonite-2 satellite in late 2017. Credit: SSTL via Twitter

In January, the Royal Air Force launched its Earth-observation mini-satellite Carbonite-2. The demonstration mission, developed jointly by the Royal Air Force’s Rapid Capability Office and satellite manufacturerSurrey Satellite Technology Ltd. has delivered encouraging results, Hillier said.

The 100-kilogram low-Earth orbit spacecraft, which provides high-definition imagery and video from space, took only eight months from concept to launch, according to Hillier, and cost 4.5 million pounds ($6.3 million).

“It has been a hugely efficient demonstration of potential disruptive technologies,” said Hillier.

“This is only part of the project, which is designed to allow us to better understand how we design, launch and operate future space-based systems.”

He added that the fast deployment and low cost would provide the resilience the military seeks at the time of increased threats, including possible adversary attacks. A lost satellite could be easily replaced without straining the military budget.

Turnock on Galileo

It has not been said whether small satellites could be an option for the possible future U.K. satellite navigation system — a project currently explored by the U.K. Space Agency and the country’s Ministry of Defence. The U.K. Space Agency launched a special task force earlier this months to look at options for the U.K.’s own satellite navigation system after it had been revealed that the European Commission would likely not allow U.K. companies to compete for Galileo contracts after the country exists the European Union next year.

“Over the past few months an independent assessments of the U.K.’s capabilities in this area has returned positive results,” the U.K. Space Agency’s chief executive Graham Turnock said at the conference. “We have established a task force assessing the options for the development of a system that would provide the capabilities we need in case of exclusion from Galileo.”

Graham Turnock, chief executive of the U.K. Space Agency, said his agency launched a special task force to evaluate options for a British alternative to Galileo. Credit: U.K. Space Agency

Turnock said that remaining a full participant in Galileo was still the U.K. government’s priority. However, as the European Commission refuses to guarantee equal opportunities to British companies, the U.K. government might be obliged to end its participation in the program, he said.

Questions also remain around the U.K.’s right to access the encrypted part of the satellite signal.

The U.K. has been a key contributor to the Galileo program since its inception. The country has contributed 1.2 billion pounds to the program’s budget and provided ground infrastructure in the Falklands and the Ascension Island. Critical components, including satellite payloads, have been built in the U.K.

When asked about the budget for the prospective satellite system, Turnock said that feasibility and affordability studies would be part of the on-going assessment.

The U.K. Space Agency said earlier that the new constellation would provide both civilian and encrypted signals and be compatible with the GPS.

The system would be developed as part of the new, first ever, U.K. Defence Space Strategy, which has been announced ahead of the conference. To be implemented by the U.K.’s Ministry of Defence (MOD), the strategy will be officially released this summer. It will look at issues such as resilience against threats including attacks and space debris, taking advantage of commercial technologies and improving space situational awareness.

Command change

The Royal Air Force also announced it has assumed responsibility and command and control of U.K. military space operations and will boost the workforce of its Space Operations Centre from 500 to 600 over the next five years.

“We are in the process of doubling the size of our Space Operations Centre at RAF High Wycombe,” said Hillier. “We have just recently combined it with the existing National Air Defence Operations Centre to create a National Air and Space Operations Centre.”

Tereza Pultarova is a London-based science and technology journalist and video producer, covering European space developments for SpaceNews. A native of the Czech Republic, she has a bachelors degree in journalism from the Charles University,...