A miniaturised satellite payload developed by engineers at the University of Bath will be sent into orbit as part of the UK’s first satellite launch, which is expected to take place today (Monday 9 January 2023).

Researchers at the University’s Department of Electronic & Electrical Engineering have built the TOPCAT payload, which will monitor part of Earth’s upper atmosphere to better understand space weather and help improve GPS and communications technology.

Dr Robert Watson, who is leading the TOPCAT project at Bath, says: “This is a unique and exciting launch, which will help us learn more about how space weather works in Earth’s ionosphere, where our atmosphere meets space.

“This will help us better understand how systems like GPS work, what their vulnerabilities might be in the case of events like solar flares, and how future systems should be designed.”

TOPCAT is part of the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory’s (Dstl) miniaturised space weather instrumentation suite IRIS (In-situ and Remote Ionospheric Sensing). IRIS is the UK’s contribution to the CIRCE (Coordinated Ionospheric Reconstruction Cubesat Experiment) mission in collaboration with the US Naval Research Laboratory. CIRCE comprises two of the inaugural satellites for the Cornwall launch. The satellites that will be launched into a near-polar low Earth orbit and are the size of a large cereal box - measuring 10cm by 20cm by 30cm.

TOPCAT will measure the electron content of different phases of GPS signals, which will help identify understand how signals change direction as they move through the atmosphere – which creates GPS errors.

The Bath engineering team, supported by project manager Dr Ali Hadavizadeh, completed their work to deliver flight-ready payloads in just nine months, beginning in 2019 – before the pandemic delayed the launch.

A unique aspect of the CIRCE mission is the ability to characterise the space weather in a volume of space between the satellites within a very short period. This is enabled by the constellation of two near identical spacecraft actively maintaining a lead-follow configuration in the same low Earth orbit, separated by 250 to 500 kilometres.

Understanding space weather is crucial to the safe operation of many of our electronic and electrical systems. Solar flares and geomagnetic storms can severely impact satellites in space, as highlighted by the loss of 40 Space X Starlink satellites in February 2022.

During the mission the CIRCE satellites will be operated from a series of ground stations in conjunction with international partners. As well as data collection, the miniature satellites will act as technology demonstrators, with their utility and performance being assessed to demonstrate the technology for future missions.

The mission, set to take place in the next few weeks, will launch from Cornwall. A modified Virgin Atlantic jumbo will carry the rocket out over the Atlantic to a launch zone south west of Ireland. At an altitude of 35,000ft, the 747 will release the rocket, which will then ignite its engine and climb into orbit.

In addition to TOPCAT, other payloads on the launch have been developed by Bath graduates. Dr Talini Pinto Jayawardena, who worked on TOPCAT at Bath, is now at Space Forge, an innovative new company testing manufacturing in space, started by fellow Bath graduate Andrew Bacon. Space Forge will be launching the first ever Welsh satellite.

Prof Cathryn Mitchell, from Bath’s Department of Electronic and Electrical Engineering, said: ‘It has been a pleasure to work on this project, with a former Bath student on our team. We have had excellent students graduate year after year from our Electronic Engineering with Space Science and Technology Degree Programme – it is inspiring to see them taking the lead in UK Space innovation at this time when satellite technology is becoming increasingly important to the UK.’

Update (10/1):

Following the failure of the launch, Professor Cathryn Mitchell said: “This setback is clearly disappointing, but we know no launch is guaranteed to work precisely to plan. That said, this is all part of the research journey and success is about perseverance and we will find another opportunity for a launch. TOPCAT will fly again.”

In addition to attending the launch, Dr Robert Watson and Prof Catherine Mitchell have given several interviews to media including BBC Points West (from 8:30), LBC News and BBC 5Live (from 21:30).