Scientists at a satellite earth station in Cornwall say they will be able to provide deep-space communication facilities for missions to Mars within the next five years.
Goonhilly Earth Station – once the largest satellite station in the world – is investing nearly £10m in upgrading some of its biggest antenna to be able to communicate with deep-space missions.
Ian Jones, chief executive of Goonhilly Earth Station, said: “There’s a lot of changes in the space industry at the moment – a lot of excitement – a lot of exploration – and new missions to the moon and Mars and we’re going to be the first private company to be providing the communications services for those missions.”
Mars mission comms for the likes of NASA and the European Space Agency could be run from Goonhilly 6 – the site’s largest satellite dish – at 32 metres wide.
There are more than 30 antenna at Goonhilly which already receive data from satellites orbiting earth, providing information services such as weather and television.
It was Goonhilly’s first antenna – known as Arthur – which received the very first images of the Apollo moon landing from NASA, beaming the footage across Europe.
Goonhilly has also opened a brand new multi-million pound data centre to help process the huge amounts of data required for future lunar missions.
The developments at Goonhilly form just one part of the space revolution under way in the county.
Virgin Orbit, which aims to launch rockets carrying satellites from Boeing 747 planes, is creating its UK launch site at Newquay Airport on Cornwall’s north coast.
It is one of a number of companies working with Spaceport Cornwall, based at the airport.
Chief executive of Virgin Orbit Dan Hart told Sky News that Cornwall is an attractive base: “We’ve been working together for almost two years now. Between Cornwall Council and the UK Space Agency, the idea of bringing launch capabilities to Britain.
“Given that we’re an air-launch system and we’re very portable, we’ve got the ability to very easily move over and we’re very excited about launching out of Cornwall.”
Virgin Orbit carried out a drop-test of a rocket in California earlier this month.
Mr Hart says Virgin should be in a position to launch the first satellites from Newquay in 2021: “We’ve been in a flight test programme for the last eight to 10 months.
We have been testing our rocket performance with our 747 aeroplane flying the full capabilities of the 747 and really taking it to task, and the drop test was the final test of that to make that the rocket can drop very cleanly, aircraft controllability, rocket controllability, are good and we’re ready to fly.”
Spaceport Cornwall director Miles Carden says the £35m investment in Cornwall’s space programme will create significant employment: “We already make as many satellites as most other countries in the world outside of the US so we’ve got that ecosystem already in the UK and we want a bit of that in Cornwall.
“We’re looking at about 150 jobs initially. We think well over half of those will be locally sourced and locally employed.
“There will be people coming over from the US to look after the technology, but over time that will diminish and we will grow.”
The excitement about Cornwall’s space possibilities is echoed by Goonhilly’s head of data centre Chris Roberts: “It’s going to bring more businesses here, it’s going to enable us to build up this hub and ultimately that means more money for Cornwall.
“It means more jobs for the Cornish people and helps us become that real hub for innovation and tech in the South West.”