Oxford Space Systems/SPRINT case study

With funding from the Connecting Capability Fund and support from SPRINT and the University of Surrey, this space technology business is pioneering deployable antennas which are lighter and less complex than its rivals.

If the UK is to become a world-class space leader, collaborative investment in structures for the design, manufacture and deployment of world-leading, lower-cost technologies is required.

Based at the UK’s Harwell Space Cluster, award-winning Oxford Space Systems (OSS) has worked with SPace Research and Innovation Network for Technology (SPRINT) and the University of Surrey on deployable antennas.

Antennas are critical in satellite communication. They both transmit and receive data, and without them a satellite unit cannot work fully. There are, however, engineering challenges: lowering the cost of space technology means reducing material weight while simultaneously increasing safety, reliability and functionality. It is critical that antennas are robust enough to survive the demands of outer space because satellite parts cannot be repaired or replaced once they are in orbit.

OSS has overcome these challenges by putting its new designs through mechanical and thermal tests to simulate the space environment and measuring the resulting performance of new antenna materials.

Founder of Oxford Space Systems, Michael Lawton, said: “The scope of the activity in the SPRINT project was to demonstrate the potential of reinforced carbon-fibre composites when manufactured as a reflective surface operating at high frequency.

“Our new generation of deployable antennas and structures are lighter, less complex and lower cost than those in current commercial demand. The manufacturing strategy and foldability was successfully demonstrated.”

Antennas that can be folded before launch and expanded once in orbit help reduce the cost of putting satellites in space. A foldable antenna takes up less room so that a satellite’s overall mass is reduced. This results in a smaller payload to be launched into space, saving on the energy required to send it skywards.

OSS previously collaborated with the University of Surrey on the Surrey Space Centre AlSat-Nano space mission. This mission was a joint endeavour by the UK and Algeria to build and operate a 3U CubeSat, a standard, mini satellite used for research purposes. The project was designed to provide training to Algerian students, making use of UK engineering and experience.

“The results gained from collaborating with the University of Surrey will form the basis of a flight unit, which will be placed into orbit.” OSS founder, Michael Lawton

When the small OSS team next needed additional expertise and test facility access to develop their deployable antennas to a world-leading level, it turned to SPRINT.

Head of the national SPRINT programme, based at the University of Leicester, Dr Ross Burgon, said: “As commercial product development for the space sector gets increasingly competitive, reducing development times and costs can be a real game-changer for suppliers. The support of experts and funding from the SPRINT programme can help businesses like OSS to become pioneers.”

The new, £5 million SPRINT programme is supported by Research England’s Connecting Capability Fund and is dedicated to supporting the growth of small to medium enterprises (SMEs) in the UK through the commercial exploitation of space data and technologies. The programme is delivered by a consortium of five of the UK’s leading space universities, led by the University of Leicester and including the University of Edinburgh, Open University, University of Southampton and University of Surrey.

The SPRINT collaboration has helped lower potential project risks for OSS and the development of future products is expected to be faster. OSS’s antennae membrane performed better than expected at a QV band frequency (extremely high frequency, or EHF, used for satellite communication), making it more cost-effective.

OSS founder, Michael Lawton, said: “The SPRINT programme provides essential support. Working with the University of Surrey allowed us to employ expertise in a niche technical area to analyse the effects of a space environment on composite materials.

“Through SPRINT, we’ve been able to access key University of Surrey facilities and areas of expertise across multiple departments. This includes labs in the physics department to determine the thermomechanical properties of the resins, the Surrey Space Centre to do the thermal cycling tests and the Centre for Engineering Materials and Structures for the material characterisation.

“OSS will use the results gained from collaborating with the University of Surrey and apply them to the manufacturing of an engineering qualification model. This qualified space antenna will then form the basis of a flight unit, which will be placed into orbit.”