News story

History of MOD in space

Even at the dawn of the space race with the launch of the Soviet Union’s Sputnik 1, the UK and its Cold War allies were listening.

History of MOD in space

In the UK, this included the electronic surveillance systems at RAF Lasham in Hampshire. This information was processed at the Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE) Farnborough – the forerunner of Dstl.

Launch vehicles and sounding rockets from the Black Arrow and Skylark programmes were sent into space as early as 1957, mainly from the Australian Woomera site. This allowed the UK to understand the impact of the space environment and to enable us, in 1971, to be the sixth nation to launch a satellite into orbit – the RAE Prospero satellite.

Military satellite communications have been provided by the Skynet series of satellites, operating in Geostationary Earth Orbit (GEO) since 1969. Dstl and its predecessors have provided a crucial role in developing and assuring these systems and continue to provide advice to the Ministry of Defence (MOD) on future satellites.

The Space Object Identification Programme began in RAE’s Special Systems Department in 1982. The techniques developed at RAE used inverse synthetic aperture radar to produce high resolution images of space objects using ground-based radar data. The programme continued to provide valuable imaging data until 2001.

In the 1990s and early 2000s, Dstl’s predecessor agencies developed multiple earth observation (EO) satellites and collaborated with nations such as the United States and Canada. This included the space technology research vehicles, a series of 4 satellites using many novel space technologies, and the industry-led TopSat satellite, a joint venture between MOD and the then British National Space Centre.

The Dstl Space Programme began in 2014 and has just been relaunched with an injection of £50 million over the next 5 years.This is a clear sign of the importance of space capabilities to MOD. The programme will continue to build on the historic achievements of Dstl’s predecessors by looking at developments in EO, communications and the space environment with applications for the defence and security of the UK.

Published 10 October 2017