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US firm picks UK for weather satellites

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A miniaturised instrument to monitor the weather will be the first payload to fly on one of the UK's new publicly funded demonstration satellites.

US-based Orbital Micro Systems will launch their microwave radiometer aboard the 30cm-long spacecraft next year to retrieve temperature, humidity and precipitation measurements.

If successful, OMS plans a 40-strong constellation of similar satellites.

OMS is moving into Britain because of the support offered to new space firms.

Originating in Colorado, the company is opening a data-processing centre in Harwell, Oxfordshire, and a hardware facility in Glasgow, Scotland.

"The UK's In-Orbit Demonstration programme is unique; it doesn't exist anywhere else," says OMS CEO William Hosack.

"The speed with which we were able to integrate into the UK space ecosystem and start the conversation is blazingly fast.

"And for small companies in space that's really important – we don't have the luxury of waiting around 10 years to launch our satellite; we need to do it inside 18 months," he told BBC News.

OMS intends to sell data and analysis to those concerns that want faster, more frequent weather updates.

Example customers would include airlines and shipping operators that need to know what the weather is doing immediately ahead, and to the side, of aircraft and ocean-going vessels in order to optimise their routing and traffic management.

The Satellite Applications Catapult, which was set up by the government to foster new space enterprises, is providing four, likely five, satellites on which companies can prove their technologies actually work in orbit.

This should then make it much easier for those firms to raise the additional capital required to expand their businesses.

OMS is taking the first opportunity. Its 10cm by 10cm by 15cm radiometer will slot inside a spacecraft "bus" provided by cubesat manufacturer Clyde Space and ejected from the International Space Station towards the end of 2018.

"Clyde Space will be providing the bus, payload integration and test in preparation for launch," confirmed the Glasgow manufacturer's CEO, Craig Clark.

"Of course, ultimately, the objective for Clyde Space is to support OMS with the roll-out of their constellation – it’s a very exciting mission and OMS have developed a payload that has huge potential for commercial and civil data customers."

The traditional microwave sounders on the government satellites that provide public weather forecasts are scientific marvels, but they are big (the size of a coffee table) and cost many millions to produce.

OMS has produced a very low-cost instrument package that is "about the size of a couple of loaves of bread". The firm envisages flying a network of these devices in the sky to retrieve many more observations than are possible with their bigger cousins. Essentially, the aim is to get soundings through the atmosphere at any one location every 15 minutes.

"We will get scientific precision by having multiple platforms taking multiple observations," Mr Hosack said. "But we don't want governments to ever stop flying these big, scientifically driven systems. They're incredibly accurate. And indeed that accuracy is very valuable to companies like us because we can do a check-sum of our observations (when we fly under them)."

Constellations of satellites are the current vogue.

For telecommunications, operators conceive of thousands of small spacecraft in the sky to deliver broadband and other services. For Earth imaging and weather monitoring, the networks being rolled out are nothing like as big, but having multiple assets is still regarded as the way to go, to improve the timeliness of observations.

And it is clear the UK is emerging as a major player in these new systems.

The contract to build and launch OMS's "Global Environmental Monitoring Satellite" was announced at Thursday's 13th Appleton Space Conference.

The deadline for proposals for the second mission closes on 10 January.

The IOD programme is funded through Innovate UK and managed by the Catapult.

Readers may recall a spacecraft called TechDemoSat-1 that was launched in 2014 to showcase new space technologies in UK industry and academia.

"The new IOD programme could be regarded as a spiritual successor to TechDemoSat," explained Chris Brunskill, the head of small satellites and future constellations at the Catapult.

"We've taken the lessons learned from that programme and that's what's really focussed us on the commercial exploitation. We're interested in the novel applications of technology and mission concepts, but they all have to be chasing a realistic and obtainable market opportunity."

The Appleton meeting also saw the announcement from the UK Space Agency of a £200,000 investment in four new business incubators to boost the number of start-up companies in the UK space sector.

One of these will be at the University of Leicester, to help students develop entrepreneurial ideas.

[email protected] and follow me on Twitter: @BBCAmos

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