Space and Exploration Technology

The Space and Exploration Technology Group (SET) delivers frontier research across access to space, in-orbit and planetary exploration technologies, including underpinning work on orbital dynamics and mission design. Through simulation, laboratory-scale demonstration and terrestrial analogues, our work is developing key technologies to enable the exploration missions and satellite applications of the future. Our laboratory-based research activities are centred on the Integrated Space and Exploration Technologies Laboratory (I-SET), recently up-graded to provide an air-bearing and Helmholtz coil, vacuum chamber, clean room area and 3D printing facilities. A new European Space Agency (ESA) funded space environment chamber will support work on rocket plume-regolith interaction for lunar, Mars and asteroid missions.

Our staff

Academic staff

Research Assistants

PhD candidates

Prof Colin McInnes Dr Masaki Nakamiya Liviu Stamat
Prof Konstantinos Kontis Dr Gilles Bailet Bonar Robb
Dr Patrick G Harkness Dr James Beeley Xiaoyu Liu
Dr Matteo Ceriotti   Andrea Viale
Dr Kevin Worrall   Merel Vergaaij
Dr Enric Grustan Gutierrez   George Knox
    Giulia Viavattene
    Iain Moore
    Tom Timmons
    Krzysztof Bzdyk
    Andrew Cusick
    Cameron Houston


Access to space

Patrick Harkness, Konstantinos Kontis, Kevin Worrall, Enric Grustan Gutierrez

Small satellites are typically launched on large vehicles, but there are constraints on cost and orbits which can be accessed.

Our solution

Hypersonic re-useable vehicles - or burn rocket casing as fuel, enabling nano-launchers sized for individual small satellites.

We are developing the autophage launch vehicle in collaboration with Dnipro National University. This concept is a rocket which consumes its own structure for propellant during ascent, thereby reducing the dry mass of the vehicle to a near-zero value. The result is that the launch vehicle can be scaled down such that it is matched to an individual nanosat.

Our partners

Dnipro National UniversityOrbital Access Ltd (Prestwick)

Space technologies

Colin McInnes, Kevin Worrall, Matteo Ceriotti

New technologies are required to unlock and underpin the commercial satellite applications of the future.

Our solution

Though a Royal Academy of Engineering Chair in Emerging Technologies we are investigating new concepts for space technologies, satellite platforms and mission design from micro-to-macro length-scales. By pushing the boundaries of length-scale to these extremes, it is anticipated that unsuspected new concepts will emerge which can underpin the new downstream satellite applications of the future. Our work is delivering a mix of modelling and simulation, laboratory-scale bread-boarding and ultimately in-orbit demonstration as appropriate. For example, our PCB-satellite programme is developing a 3x3 cm device with 3-axis attitude control, while our work on in-orbit fabrication is investigating direct printing of structural materials onto membranes in vacuum.

Micro-scale: We envisage a new class of space system delivering real-time, high spatial resolution measurements of the space environment using massively parallel sensing with clouds of networked sensor nodes. Services could include space weather monitoring through MEMs-scale magnetometers embedded in each node, or support for large platforms through visual inspection and fault detection.

Meso-scale: Future platforms can be configured using 2D arrays of unfolding planar modules, each hosting computing, power and communications. By reconfiguring the geometry of such arrays, adaptable platforms can be envisaged which can be reconfigured to deliver a range of mission applications, while their time-varying inertia matrix enables new and novel attitude control strategies.

Macro-scale: By directly printing structures onto thin film reflective membranes, ultra-large gossamer reflectors can be fabricated in-orbit. We envisage new energy services with sunlight reflected onto large terrestrial solar PV farms at dawn/dusk when spot prices are high. Other applications include thermal power for in-orbit manufacturing, potentially to process near Earth asteroid resources.

Other work includes micro-satellite attitude control with Alba Orbital Ltd, supported through a Royal Academy of Engineering Industrial Fellowship, and work on machine learning with Craft Prospect Ltd.

Our partners

Royal Academy of EngineeringAlba Orbital LtdCraft Prospect Ltd

Orbital dynamics

Matteo Ceriotti, Colin McInnes

Once in space, spacecraft require efficient orbit manoeuvres to deliver mission objectives, and reach new orbit and vantage points and orbits.

Our solution 

We explore the dynamics of multi-body gravitational interactions and non-gravitational perturbations in order to design new families of efficient spacecraft trajectories. This includes work on new methodologies for trajectory optimisation and the use of light pressure for solar sailing to deliver new families of highly non-Keplerian orbits which can enable entirely new vantage points in space. 

Through new insights into asteroid orbital dynamics we are leveraging multi-body gravitational interactions to reduce the scale of engineering required for asteroid capture, part supported by a Royal Society Wolfson Research Merit Award. This includes the use of stable invariant manifolds, aerocapture and kinetic impacts. Other work is investigating energy-efficient asteroid dis-assembly using the ‘orbital siphon’ effect and the interaction of economic models with trajectory optimisation and mission design. 

We exploit Deep Learning and Artificial Neural Networks to quickly identify feasible and low-cost trajectories to selected targets among thousands of asteroids. Other research explores the use of new and potentially disruptive space propulsion technologies for future applications. Examples are the use of solar radiation pressure and hybrid propulsion. Applications include the design and control of asteroid proximity orbits using a solar sail. Work on efficient solar sail trajectories is supported through a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Incoming International Fellowship. 

Our partners 

The Royal SocietyEU Horizon 2020 Framework ProgrammeClyde Space Ltd

Landing on other worlds

Konstantinos Kontis

Challenge of heating on re-entry, rocket plume-regolith interactions can lead to debris plumes on landing.

Our solution 

Simulation of re-entry aerodynamics, new European test facility to experiment with rocket exhaust impacts on granular materials. 

Our partners 

ESA-ESTEC contract to deliver plume-regolith test facility

Surface and subsurface exploration

Patrick Harkness, Colin McInnes, Kevin Worrall, Matteo Ceriotti

Drilling in low gravity (asteroids, Moon and Mars) with no real-time control requires new exploration technologies.

Our solution 

Exploration activities focus on the penetration of granular, rocky, and permafrost/ice materials. We have demonstrated that granular materials can be fluidised by ultrasonic excitation, and this facilitates penetration across a wide range of apparent gravities. Ultrasonic and percussive techniques have been used to penetrate and core-sample rock, and technology transfer activities have spun these concepts out into subglacial polar exploration on Earth. All these systems have been supported by robotic systems, and we have demonstrated drill-assembly and disassembly for space, as well as larger subterranean tunnelling robotic concepts for use on Earth. We also investigate the extraction of asteroid resources for utilisation in space. 

Our partners 

British Antarctic SurveyEU H2020 (biomimetic tunneling robot)

We engage heavily in field deployment of our hardware, including to sites in Tenerife, Boulby Underground Laboratory, and Antarctica; as well as to other labs in places such as Aachen, ESTEC and Dnipro.