Highlights from the 14th Appleton Space Conference

The 14th Appleton Space Conference took place last week on Thursday 6th December at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory at Harwell. This annual one-day conference is an opportunity to hear the latest developments relevant to the UK Space industry.

After introductions the first speaker was Graham Turnock, Chief Executive of the UK Space Agency who reiterated the Government’s commitment to the Space Industry and highlighted a number of initiatives including:

  • £50M space flight programme.
  • £325K for education activities to increase interest in STEM.
  • 21 new Pathfinder projects in the National Space Technology Programme.
  • The Molecular Muscle Experiment, which is the first UK-led experiment on the International Space Station where thousands of worms have been sent into space to help scientists better understand spaceflight-induced muscle loss – incidentally this has a very cool mission patch! Take a look!

It was not all positive as it was confirmed that the UK can’t participate in the Galileo programme due to Brexit, but he stated we were still interested in being part of Copernicus.

Gunter Hasinger, ESA Director of Science took the next slot and talked about ESA’s deep space activities including the Plato 2026 mission to find Earth like planets. Interestingly, they are requesting a twenty percent increase in resources at the next ESA Ministerial.

The third session moved back to Space Applications with Andy German from Innovate UK describing the industry’s links to the Government’s Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund. He described the focus on commercialising research, smaller companies and the need for work to be business-led with academic/research partners – all of which was great to hear from our viewpoint.

There is a clear interest in artificial intelligence and the data economy within the strategy, and for our industry the need to develop a dynamic and sustainable marketplace for space data – this is a challenge for the downstream sector and is something we’ve written about before. Andy acknowledged there were challenges including data volumes, customer knowledge and awareness, high performance computing, perception of costs and value for money, multitude of vendors and lack of standards. However, he equally highlighted that there are opportunities if the sector can work together.

The remaining sessions before lunch were mostly looking at deep space missions, with some of the highlights for me:

  • Prof Michele Dougherty from Imperial College London discussing the highlights of the Cassini Mission to Saturn and its Moons which has lasted for thirteen years, even though it was only planned for four.
  • Andy Vick and Steve Maddox, from STFC RAL and Teledyne e2v respectively, described the quantum technology of the UK Cold Atom Sensors. These gravimeters would be several orders of magnitude better than the existing Gravity field and Ocean Circulation Explorer (GOCE) mission in identifying aquifers and tunnels – although there is still some way to go on the technology.
  • Dr Alan Title from Lockheed Martin reviewed the COSPAR Roadmap on Small Satellites, which is updated every two years. He noted that the US Federal Communications Commission had approved over 11,000 SpaceX small satellites, with 4,000 in 1200 km orbits, and 7,500 in 340 km orbits. This is obviously going to be a huge increase in the number of satellites, as just over 8,000 objects have ever been launched into space!
  • Dr Helen Mason, University of Cambridge talking about the Sun, Space and Art: Reaching Out to Schools project looking at STEAM – a new acronym from me which is STEM + Arts.

Chris Skidmore MP, Minister of State for Universities and Science addressing the conference.

After lunch the conference was joined by Chris Skidmore MP, on the second day in his role as Minister of State for Universities and Science. He outlined the key Government priorities for space:

  • Making the most of our future membership of ESA.
  • Resolve the UK’s future participation in Copernicus.
  • Work with academia and industry on the space sector deal.


My highlights of the afternoon session included:

  • Dr Shubha Sathyendranath from Plymouth Marine Laboratory looked at how Ocean Colour Contributes to Meeting Sustainable Development Goals by the monitoring of water quality of Kerala before, and after, the floods there this year.
  • Nobu Okada from Astroscale had a slightly frightening opening when he described that the density of space debris has reached critical levels, and then went on to compare approaches to the challenge of removing debris.

The final session of the day was the conference keynote lecture Plastics in Our Oceans – a Major Environmental Threat or Just an Embarrassment? given by Dr Simon Boxall from National Oceanography Centre and University of Southampton. This topic has received press coverage over the last year and the general public response has led to some organisation and policy changes. Some interesting statistics from Simon were:

  • Plastic straws take 200 years to breakdown and half a billion straws are used every day in the USA alone– which shows how positive the recent actions are within the UK to move away from them.
  • Tax on plastic bags reduced usage by around 85% to 90%.
  • US banned production of microbeads 18 months ago, and banned their use this year. This has been followed with other countries.
  • The University of Miami’s long term time-series monitoring plastics shows that levels have reached a plateau.

Overall, this was a very interesting conference with lots of great examples of the positive projects and work taking place within the UK Space Industry.

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