THE UK is seeking to join Portugal and Spain as a member of the Atlantic Constellation, a flagship global project of small satellites for Earth, ocean and climate monitoring.
Through an agreement procured by the UK Space Agency (UKSA), the country says it will build a new £6 million pathfinder satellite, designed and constructed by UK-based company Open Cosmos, that could become part of the constellation.
Announced on the opening day of the UK Space Conference in Belfast, the satellite is aimed at strengthening UK capabilities in Earth observation technology. It will also compliment UK Earth observation (EO) contributions to the EU Copernicus programme, ESA projects and bilateral missions.
Clarifying the Belfast announcement a spokesman for UKSA said it had signed an agreement with Open Cosmos to build and launch a mission that "matches the requirements" of the Atlantic Constellation. "We are in talks with Portugal and Spain regarding a formal joining of the Atlantic Constellation governance mechanism," he added.
Rebecca Evernden, Director of Space with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, told conference delegates in the opening plenary that the UK had also increased its involvement in Copernicus, which had previously been uncertain following Brexit.
The new pathfinder satellite, of the same design and to be launched in the same orbital plane as three others from Portugal, is being co-funded by Open Cosmos, which is based on the Harwell Space Campus in Oxfordshire.
Rafael Jorda Siquier, Chief Executive of Open Cosmos, said: “The UK joining Portugal and Spain in the Atlantic Constellation is a major step forward in our national EO strategy. Building a shared satellite constellation is a very effective way of having high revisit diverse data over each region of interest.“
New UK space minister Andrew Griffith, appointed as Minister of State at the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology after prime minister Rishi Sunak’s government reshuffle the previous week, was not among the 1500 attendees at the three-day Belfast conference.
Chi Onwurah, the opposition Labour party’s Shadow Minister for Science, Research & Innovation, was scheduled to visit the conference on its final day.
In a statement issued by the UKSA, Griffith said: “Earth observation will play an absolutely vital role in tackling global challenges like climate change and disaster relief, providing the data we need at speed, while supporting key UK industries like agriculture and energy.
“By working with Open Cosmos on a new satellite and supporting our Atlantic partnerswe can harness space tech for our shared goals, while creating new skills opportunities and jobs for the future to grow the UK economy.”
If a deal is reached with Portugal and Spain the UK’s pathfinder satellite will help increase the frequency of revisit time in the constellation’s first orbital plane by a third, meaning more frequent observations can be made of the same point on Earth.
Key applications will include disaster relief action, early detection of climate change indicators, increasing agricultural productivity and improving energy use.
Spain and Portugal announced their agreement to develop a constellation of Earth observation satellites in November 2022. The baseline Atlantic Constellation, costing EUR 60 million, will consist of 16 microsatellites and be able to provide data about any place on Earth every three hours.
The UK is among four other countries (South Africa, Mexico, Brazil and Norway) to have expressed an interest in joining the programme as a partner.
Having more countries involved will allow an increase in the data rate up to the point where satellite information is available every hour, improving the performance of the system without incurring a higher cost for the main participating states.
Chief Executive of the UKSA, Dr Paul Bate, said: “There’s no better way to open the UK Space Conference than by backing a new Earth observation programme.
“Space has been shaping our lives for decades but is set to become increasingly critical as we take the necessary steps to protect our planet, drive prosperity and push the boundaries of human knowledge.
“We are focused on catalysing investment, delivering new missions and capabilities in areas such as Earth observation and the low-Earth orbit economy, and championing the opportunities that our growing space sector brings to people and businesses up and down the country.”
The Atlantic Constellation is a concept for a cooperative constellation of Earth observation (EO) satellites, joining several private and public actors for a common effort to tackle a new EO data policy for territory monitoring and therefore the dynamics of climate changing.
The approach for this initiative was originated by Portugal in 2020 through two parallel studies that ESA carried out upon request of the Portuguese Space Agency (PSA). The initiative aims at developing a business-driven constellation of satellites, carried out in international cooperation, that responds to the needs of many coastal regions.
Since its inception, the goal is for the initiative to be a shared effort between different regions that face similar challenges, where each partner contributes with a reduced number of satellites while benefiting from the data of a broader constellation.
Spain was the first country to join Portugal in the Atlantic Constellation initiative. In 2021, the two countries decided to use EU Recovery and Resilience funds to develop a series of Earth Observation satellites. In Portugal, eight high-resolution satellites are being developed as part of the New Space Portugal Agenda, led by Geosat.
This initiative will provide valuable data for many end users, ranging from aquaculture, land use, or agriculture, but it will also allow the Portuguese industrial ecosystem to acquire know-how on developing and operating end-to-end space systems. On the other hand, Spain will develop eight additional satellites, a development that the European Space Agency will oversee.
Joan Alabart, Industrial Relations and Projects Officer of PSA, said: “The Atlantic Constellation is open to other countries and the UK has manifested its interest to contribute. And the terms of participation are currently being prepared. Other countries have also expressed interest in joining the initiative, which will be announced in due course.”
Portugal is also developing in parallel a series of complementary constellations for VDES, SAR and Very High-Resolution imagery that are expected to be operational by 2026, and these constellations will complement the national effort in the Atlantic Constellation to use all kind of data to foster the development of new satellite based EO data applications.