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Thales UK Rolls Out Yet Another European First By Howard Wheeldon, FRAeS, Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd.



Just weeks after Thales announced a £6 billion ongoing programme of global investment in digital transformative technologies to include Big Data, Artificial Intelligence, Digital Security and Autonomy together with opening its Maritime Autonomous Systems Trial and Evaluation Centre at Turnchapel Wharf, Plymouth comes news of another European first from the Thales Alenia Space/Thales UK combination with the roll out from Belfast of the first all-electric propulsion system for satellites.

News that the first electric propulsion system has now come off the production line at the Thales Alenia Space Belfast facility is not only superb news for the UK space industry as a whole but importantly, another significant statement from Thales senior management of how the company continues to invest in the UK. In doing so, Thales UK is committing not only to further developing and growing Belfast but also further developing its Harwell and Bristol sites.

Creating and maintaining highly-skilled specialist jobs whilst to an extent also to be seen as transferring engineering skills from defence to space, with contracts already in place for further satellites, this joint electric propulsion investment by Thales Alenia Space/Thales UK shows that the company continues to have great confidence in the UK just as it also does an intention and determination to deliver success.

Since the establishment in 2014 of the UK Thales Alenia Space facility and the intention for this to become the Propulsion Centre of Competence for the whole of Thales Alenia Space suffice to say that the Belfast operation is not only to be seen as a major milestone in the development of space design and manufacturing capability but also a superb example of commitment by Thales to the UK.

Importantly the Belfast facility represents a strong commitment by Thales to both create, sustain and grow world class innovation, design and advanced space engineering skills in the UK and through this, a clear intention to engage an increasing number of national and global space programmes.


In respect of employment, space-related jobs within Thales UK have increased from 10 back in 2014 to some 200 in 2018 – the increased number of jobs created based across Bristol, Harwell and Belfast sites and the intention is to grow these numbers to around 350 by 2020.

The investment should also be seen as yet another important delivery milestone for the UK Space Agency, ESA and Invest Northern Ireland just as it also should be a statement of the UK’s dynamic and growing space sector.

Reflecting on Thales commitment to retain and grow an already strong, regional footprint in the UK, the strategy is based not only on developing a highly-skilled workforce and continued investment in R&D and Thales Alenia Space’s already successful European footprint, but also for the company to make an ever increasing contribution to global satellite telecommunications programmes

My understanding is that the decision to open the assembly, test and manufacturing centre in Belfast was made after an extensive evaluation of potential sites around the world. Belfast which was the home of Short Brothers whose original missile system activities has been acquired by Thales in 2001 and renamed Thales Air Defence, was not surprisingly because of its history found to be able to provide high level precision skills required. The bottom line is that defence based skills are complimentary to those of space.

The Belfast facility will manufacture electric propulsion systems for the European Space Agency’s Neosat satellite programme. Further contracts are also in place for the French Government, SES, and Eutelsat’s KONNECT VHTS satellite.

The space industry is also a key pillar within the published UK Government Industrial Strategy for economic growth and that has at its heart an intention by the UK to capture £40 billion (10%) of the world’s space market for connected services by 2030. Interestingly although I cannot fully support this comment, I am informed that space sector productivity is apparently three times the UK national average.

Generally I do not write on technical issues but suffice to say here that traditional satellites use various types of chemical propellant for propulsion. The Thales Electric propulsion design uses Xenon gas and solar-powered electrical energy which is more environmentally friendly. The benefits of electric propulsion module allows the satellite to carry larger payloads, driving down the cost of operating the platform in space. Carrying Xenon gas on board requires one fifth the volume required by chemical propellant.

Electric propulsion is when electrical energy collected from the Sun by the satellite’s sonar panels is converted into thrust by the acceleration of Xenon gas from an electric thruster. The gas can reach speeds in excess of 22,000 mph. This is 10 x faster than traditional chemical propellant requiring 10 x less fuel for the same thrust. Once free from the rocket, the satellite will use its electric propulsion system to manoeuvre into the correct orbit and keep in in the correct position during its lifetime.

When a satellite is in its geostationary orbit, the propulsion system is used for ‘station keeping’ to compensate for variable gravitational effects caused by to the moon, the sun and the oblateness (flattened sphere) of Earth. Orbiting directly over the Equator, the satellite will be travelling at speeds of over 3km per second (or 6,700mph) at an altitude of nearly 36,000km above the Earth

The first designed and built Spacebus Neo XPS (Xenon Propulsion System) module will power the Eutelsat KONNECT satellite, a communications satellite that will help bring high speed internet and connectivity to sparsely populated and isolated regions and that is planned to be launched in 2019.

CHW (London – 1st November 2018)

Howard Wheeldon FRAeS

Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd      

M: +44 7710 779785

Skype: chwheeldon





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