Major Tim Peake opens Thales' UK electric propulsion centre
Yesterday, Thales UK opened its Electric Propulsion Integration Centre in Belfast, Northern Ireland - the first of its kind in the UK - with ESA astronaut Major Tim Peake cutting the ribbon at the inauguration event during his postflight tour of the UK.
Above: (left to right) Magali Vaissiere, ESA Director of Telecommunications and Integrated Applications, Rt Hon. Arlene Foster, Northern Ireland’s First Minister, Philip McBride, General Manager at Thales Belfast, ESA astronaut Tim Peake, Minister Simon Hamilton, Minister for the Economy, Northern Ireland.
The Centre will expand Europe’s all-electric satellite capability as part of ESA’s Neosat programme, manufacturing state of the art electric propulsion systems for satellites.
Electric propulsion is when electrical energy collected from the Sun is converted into thrust by the acceleration of inert Xenon gas ions from an electric thruster. Electric propulsion allows the satellite to carry larger payloads for longer periods, driving down the cost of operating the platform in space and requiring one fifth of the propellant to deliver the same mission compared to chemical-based engines.
The facility represents a major milestone in the development of space design and manufacturing capability for Thales in the UK since the establishment in 2014 of Thales Alenia Space in the UK.
Victor Chavez, Chief Executive, Thales UK, said: “The opening of this propulsion centre represents a major milestone in our commitment to invest in the future of space manufacturing and game changing technology in Belfast and the UK. It also opens an exciting new chapter for a site which already enjoys a deserved reputation for world class precision engineering skills.”
The Thales Alenia Space Joint Venture investment has grown the business from 10 employees at its foundation to 150 today, and will more than double to 350 in the next two years. The investment will also see the expansion of Space engineering centres of excellence in Bristol and Harwell, Oxfordshire.
The decision to open the manufacturing centre in Belfast was made after an evaluation of potential sites around Europe. The heritage of precision engineering for the defence sector, traced back to the iconic Short Brothers, and the similarity of skills to those of the space industry, made the Northern Ireland site an obvious choice.
This was further reinforced by the UK Government’s commitment to fund space activities and create new initiatives to foster growth in the space industry – including the formation of the UK Space Agency, an increased contribution to the European Space Agency (ESA), the investment in the UK Space Gateway at Harwell and securing a significant share of the Neosat programme for the UK.
The Belfast site will work closely with these centres and with other Thales sites around the world. The first 10 engineers from Belfast have completed their training in the new propulsion technology at the Thales Alenia Space headquarters in Cannes, France.
The facility will manufacture around four satellite electric propulsion systems per year, including those for the European Space Agency’s Neosat satellite programme. Neosat is part of the Agency’s aim of developing in orbit next-generation satellite platforms for the core satellite communications market.
Belfast will play an important step towards the qualification and production of the Thales Alenia Space’s Spacebus NEO satellite platform offering under the ESA Neosat programme.
The Belfast facility has also received support and investment from Invest Northern Ireland in the form of a training and industrial research grant.
First Minister of Northern Ireland, Arlene Foster commented: “The Space Sector is an important emerging market with exciting commercial opportunities spanning numerous industries including engineering, ICT and communications. We want to ensure local businesses maximise their world class capabilities and expertise to position Northern Ireland as a globally recognised region for space sector innovation and expertise.
“The new clean room facilities at Thales are an important investment in the development of Northern Ireland’s space cluster and demonstrate the Group’s confidence in the world-class engineering capabilities of its workforce in Northern Ireland.”
For more than 40 years, Thales Alenia Space has designed, integrated, tested, operated and delivered innovative space systems. Its cutting-edge products and services meet the needs of commercial and government customers from around the world, spanning the communications, navigation, earth observation, space exploration, science and defence sectors.
Thales Alenia Space is also one of the main suppliers to the International Space Station (ISS), having constructed over half of the pressurised volume of the ISS.
Thanks to the European Space Agency and to the Neosat development project, Thales Alenia Space has signed three contracts based on Spacebus NEO including three XPS modules to be built in Belfast facilities.
Magali Vaissiere, ESA Director of Telecommunications and Integrated Applications, commented: “Neosat aims to help European satellite builders to capture at least half of the world’s satcom market in the years to come.
“The opening of this dedicated facility in Belfast is an important milestone in the electric propulsion revolution.”