The University of Bristol has become the first in the region to have a satellite lab and ground station, allowing students in the department of engineering hands-on access to the cutting-edge tools used for space exploration.
The lab is at the top of the Queen’s Building on Woodland Road, which has recently had a £15m new wing built. It forms the ground station, or mission control, accepting signals from satellites and the International Space Station via antennae on the roof, and also houses a ‘clean room’ and testbed, where satellites will be built by students and researchers in an environment that prevents contamination.
The lab was opened by professor Andrew Nix, dean of engineering, in front of students, colleagues and distinguished guests, including representatives from Boeing, which sponsored some of the equipment. “We have a strong commitment to science and engineering here in Bristol, and this is a groundbreaking faculty that makes a huge impact,” Nix said. “Engineering will play a big part in the £300m Temple Quarter Enterprise Campus, and so, looking to the future, together with this lab, we’re making a statement that Bristol is a place for state-of-the-art teaching.”
Dr Lucy Berthoud is the joint director of the facility, along with Dr Mark Schenk. She is a senior teaching fellow in spacecraft systems engineering in the aerospace department and has worked in the space industry for 20 years. “The ground station is going to allow us to download data from satellites – that’s really cool, we get to play with data that’s coming live from space. It can be imagery and pictures of the earth, it can be the temperature of the satellite, which can be really interesting, or it could be weather data.
“We’ll also be able to talk to astronauts on the International Space Station – literally phone them up and say ‘Bristol calling!’ – but mainly, we’ll be able to command our own satellites that we’ll build and send into space. Then, in the satellite laboratory, we’ll be building bits of satellite and testing them.
“It’s all about is giving students the opportunity to work on really exciting challenges – to build their own spacecrafts – and we’ll give them a real-life mission. They’ll get to do a real inter-disciplinary project, because we’ve got over 60 students from different faculties all working on this particular project, and over ten staff involved too. We want to bring together everyone in the university who has an interest in space through this project. It’ll be fantastic for their CVs and their engineering experience.
“I hope it puts Bristol on the map in the world of space exploration. If it doesn’t then what will?”
As part of the opening of the lab, schoolchildren from Bridgewater College Academy spent the morning at the university, finding out about space exploration, learning to code and meeting some of the people who do this sort of work every day. Amongst them was Tim Gregory, who is completing his Phd in astrochemistry and was also a finalist in BBC series Astronauts.
“Every child is born a scientist – they love poking things with sticks and lifting up stones to see what’s underneath,” Tim said, dressed in his blue Astronauts overalls. “It’s inside everybody, but for some people it gets trampled out. Kids ask the best questions, and every single one of them that I met today was engaged. It’s a real privilege to get to talk to young people. Science is too important not to be part of the mainstream conversation, and science and engineering represents some of the best of humanity.
“This lab is going to put Bristol on the map for its literal presence in space. It’s awesome for the university and for the city, and it was unthinkable just a few decades ago. It’s going to be fantastic for the undergraduates to work in mission control and with real objects in space. It’s a unique opportunity, and it ought to be the pride and joy of the university.”