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ESA Partnering on UK’s New Space Thruster Test Site

By Doug Messier
Parabolic Arc
December 19, 2020
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An aerial shot taken by drone shows the site of the newly commissioned UK National Space Propulsion Test Facility, developed with ESA support. (Credit: ESA)

PARIS (ESA PR) — Today marks the start of final assembly of the UK’s new National Space Propulsion Facility. ESA is providing technical oversight and financial backing for the facility, which is being equipped with state-of-the-art infrastructure to test the most powerful engines used to shift the orbits of space missions.

The National Space Propulsion Facility is based at Westcott Venture Park in Buckinghamshire, a historic centre for UK rocketry.

This new site is intended for the testing of rocket engines for operation in space, so it is designed to simulate the vacuum conditions that the engines must operate in down here on Earth, in order to test the largest class of satellite engines, delivering up to 1300 Newtons of thrust.

The ability to accelerate spacecraft is fundamental to the success of any space missions. To quote Isaac Newton: ‘For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction’. As space missions grow larger, or aim to venture further away to more challenging destinations in space, the engines they rely on must grow in scale as well.

Artist’s impression of the UK’s National Space Propulsion Facility. (Credit: UK Space Agency)

“There are times when a single more powerful thruster offers much better performance than multiple small thrusters,” comments Mark Ford, Head of ESA’s Propulsion Engineering section.

“The scale of thrusters to be tested here might for instance serve the largest class of telecommunications satellites, spacecraft serving as part of the international Mars Sample Return effort and missions to the Moon and planets.”

Fitted with powerful pumps to maintain vacuum conditions, the facility’s thruster test cell will have three modes of operation: equivalent sea level pressure, medium 20 km altitude equivalent pressure and high altitude of more than 100 km height equivalent pressure.

“Now that the test cell is in place, ESA will be leading commissioning of the site, after which it will be handed over to be run by the UK’s Science and Technology Facilities Council,” adds Mark. “The facility will become an authority for testing of space mission thrusters across the UK and Europe.”

An artist’s impression of ESA’s Earth Return Orbiter spacecraft that is part of the Mars Sample Return series of missions to bring back samples from Mars. The image shows the elements of Earth Return Orbiter. Including the basketball-sized container with samples from Mars, the Orbit Insertion Module – a chemical propulsive stage for inserting the spacecraft into Mars orbit that is ejected to save mass on the return to Earth – and the Earth entry capsule that will splash down on Earth. (Credit: ESA)

ESA’s General Support Technology Programme (GSTP) has invested around €4,500 000 in the design, development and building of the facility, in collaboration with the UK Space Agency and UK industrial partners including rocket manufacturer and facility contractor Nammo UK.

The facility’s first high altitude testing is expected in the first quarter of next year, with Nammo testing their ESA-supported, High Thrust Apogee Engine, designed for future Mars missions. The company will then follow up with commercial testing of their 1C and development of the ACE 25 engines, marking a return of large commercial rocket thruster testing to the UK.

The facility will be available to the wider propulsion community from the middle of next year. Many other propulsion stakeholders have expressed interest in this new addition to Europe’s engine testing capabilities.

About GTSP

Through the optional GSTP, Participating States and Industry work together to convert promising engineering concepts into a broad spectrum of useable products for space and the open market.

The long-running GSTP is widely recognized as key a programme for building knowhow and capabilities in the space sector, helping to assure European competitiveness in the global market, creating jobs and keeping Europe at the forefront of technological innovation.

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