New Space Test Chamber at Harwell

The United Kingdom’s National Satellite Test Facility has taken delivery of a very important new item of equipment: a 16m long, 8m diameter space test chamber, capable of testing vehicles for the temperature conditions and vacuum of space.

The National Satellite Test Facility is an investment by the UK government to establish Britain’s largest collection of spacecraft testing equipment – a “one stop shop” for satellite test. It will be opened by RAL Space, a division of the Science and Technology Facilities Council, in 2022. British and international companies will be able to test spacecraft up to 7 tonnes mass. The National Satellite Test Facility is being funded by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy as a part of the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund​, an initiative to bring together business and research organisations to tackle major technological and social challenges. £99 million is being spent to establish the National Satellite Test Facility.

Using nitrogen cooled shroud panels, temperatures from 95 Kelvin to 373 Kelvin (-180°C to +100°C) can be produced inside the vacuum chamber, enabling testing for both the deeps of space and close to the sun. The chamber has internal dimensions of 7metres long by 12 metres diameter, large enough to test a satellite the size of a minibus, and the mass of the chamber is 98 tonnes.

Simply getting the chamber to Harwell was a complex operation. The chamber was built by Angelantoni Test Technologies Srl at their facility in Massa Martana in Italy, and, later this year, a team from this firm will come to Harwell to complete installation and testing.

RAL Space Director Professor Chris Mutlow said: “This has been an incredible feat of engineering and logistics. The installation of a facility of this scale is at the best of times fraught with complexities but this has been made even more challenging because of coronavirus. I am delighted that the chamber has completed its epic 5800km journey and is now safely in position in the National Satellite Test Facility where it will offer a new capability to the space community as part of the only set of co-located space test facilities at this large scale in the UK.”

The sections of the chamber were transported by 6 lorries, accompanied by 5 support vehicles and 6 police outriders, in one of the largest single road movements ever seen in Britain, from Portsmouth Harbour to the Harwell Campus. Each of the sections of the chamber, 8 metres in diameter, had to be precisely emplaced to be sealed later in the year, and the walls of the building will now be completed around the chamber.

National Satellite Test Facility Project Manager Sean Stewart said: “The installation of the large space test chamber would have been an extraordinary endeavour at the best of times. In the current challenging circumstances, the team worked tirelessly through lockdown, first in Italy and then in the UK, to get the space test chamber into place. The final walls will now go up around the chamber and once complete, the National Satellite Test Facility will play a key role in securing end-to-end capability to build, test and launch satellites from the UK.”

Amanda Solloway, Science Minister, said: ​“The UK is a world-leader in space technology and this impressive new chamber, backed by government funding, will significantly bolster our satellite testing capabilities. Importantly, it will ensure that our space industry has the first-class facilities they need to test large, complex spacecraft as we work towards the UK’s first satellite launch.”

RAL Space Head of Environmental Test Matt Fletcher said: “In addition to the current small, medium and large chambers RAL Space offers to the space sector, this new chamber vastly increases our test capacity, allowing much larger space hardware to be tested. It will allow us to test even more of the satellites which serve our everyday life, from telecommunications satellites which transmit our TV signal to the satellites monitoring the health of our planet, right here in the UK. Alongside UK launch capability, the National Satellite Test Facility supports UK businesses to compete globally to make these missions a reality.”

The National Satellite Test Facility already has ten space test chambers from one to five metres diameter, and when complete, the Facility will also be able to conduct acoustic testing, vibration and pyro-shock testing, antenna measurement, and electromagnetic compatibility testing. The Facility will be completed in 2021, and will be operational by 2022.

Summarised by Griffith Ingram

Space Test Chamber
Image: RAL Space

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