Defence Procurement Minister Jeremy Quin, who made the announcement, said: “Space technology is crucial for developing defence capabilities. “The launch of Prometheus-2 represents another important step forward for our homegrown space programme. This collaboration with In-Space Missions and Airbus paves the way for the UK to become a more resilient, more robust and more significant global space entity.”
Prometheus-2 will see two shoebox-sized satellites — known as ‘CubeSats’, after their shape — launched into orbit.
The hardware for the mission comes from Hampshire-based In-Space Missions Ltd and was designed in collaboration with Airbus Defence and Space.
The project is a collaboration between the UK Ministry of Defence and a number of its international partners, including the US National Reconnaissance Office (NRO).
According to the UK Space Agency, the pair of CubeSats “will provide a test platform for monitoring radio signals including GPS and sophisticated imaging, paving the way for a more collaborative and connected space communication system with our allies.”
The CubeSats will be ferried up into low-Earth orbit onboard Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne, an air-launched rocket deployed from a modified Boeing 747 jet named “Cosmic Girl”.
After deployment, they will operate some 31–62 miles apart at an altitude of 342 miles, orbiting Earth at a speed of 17,000 miles per hour.
The first of the satellites contains a hyperspectral imager, a laser detector and a GPS receiver, allowing it to take high definition images of Earth and confirm the precise time and position of the craft as the images are taken.
The second satellite, meanwhile, will sport two optical imaging cameras, a laser range finder and a GPS receiver.
The first camera, which is fitted with a wide-angle lens, will provide a 180-degree view of Earth’s surface.
The other, the UK Space Agency explained, will keep an eye on the other CubeSat in order to “support space situational awareness and enable us to understand what else orbits the Earth.”
They added: “The technology on board the satellites will enable the Ministry of Defence to identify new techniques and algorithms for operating satellites and data processing.”
The collaborative mission is also intended to help the Ministry of Defence better understand how the UK and its international partners can collaborate to create a more flexible and powerful system at a lower cost than could be achieved by going alone.
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UK Space Agency deputy CEO Ian Annett said: “We are putting the UK at the forefront of small satellite launches, providing world-leading capability for commercial customers and governments within a global market, opening new opportunities and inspiring the current and next generation of British space scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs.
“These satellites showcase the UK’s strengths in designing and building satellites.
“Being able to launch from the UK and across Europe for the first time will boost our satellite industry further.”
Such, he added, will also “create high skilled jobs across the country and deliver a key ambition of the National Space Strategy”.
NRO Director Dr Chris Scolose said: “We are thrilled to be part of another trailblazing endeavour with the first-ever launch of a commercial rocket from Western Europe.
“It’s an honour to join the United Kingdom’s Ministry of Defence in announcing this historic enterprise.
“We look forward to this remarkable achievement as the foundation of an even stronger collaboration between our nations.
“The CubeSats will each have separate equipment on-board to test novel concepts as a pathfinder in support of the Minerva constellation for future space-based intelligence and surveillance.”