Thales is to produce electric propulsion systems for geostationary satellites in the UK, following the opening of a new facility in Northern Ireland.
The astronaut Tim Peake officially opened Thales’ Space Propulsion Integration Centre in Belfast today.
Known as Hall-effect Thrusters, the propulsion systems will use electrical energy collected from the sun to accelerate inert xenon gas from an electric thruster. The thrusters have an exhaust velocity of approximately 10,000m per second, or between 50 and 100 times the speed of sound in air.
This can reduce the cost of launching a satellite, or allow them to carry larger loads, according to Dougie Davidson, head of space programmes at Thales Belfast.
“It makes it possible to carry a larger payload, or to launch a satellite at a lower cost because of the reduction in the amount of fuel that has to be carried,” he said. “It can save approximately 400kg of launch weight for a four-tonne satellite.”
Electric propulsion systems use around one-fifth of the propellant used by conventional chemical engines. This is particularly important at a time when the economics of space propulsion are in the spotlight, said Davidson.
The facility is part of an investment programme by Thales to expand space design and manufacturing in the UK, after the company formed Thales Alenia Space in 2014. This investment programme will also include the expansion of existing space engineering centres at Bristol and Harwell.
The company plans to build four geostationary satellite propulsion modules each year at the facility, Davidson said.
“The geostationary satellite is the largest class of satellite, and we have some capacity to produce smaller satellite propulsion systems as well,” he said.
The decision to invest in space engineering and manufacturing in the UK was also partly due to the government’s efforts to promote the industry, the company said.
These efforts include securing a significant share of the European Space Agency’s Neosat programme for the UK.
The Neosat programme aims to develop new technology platforms for three to six tonne geostationary satellites. Its ultimate goal is to enable Europe to take a 50 per cent share of the global geostationary satellite market, said Davidson.