Space instrumentation: An exemplar of academic-industry partnership
Submitting InstitutionOpen University
Unit of AssessmentEarth Systems and Environmental Sciences
Summary Impact TypeTechnological
Research Subject Area(s)
Physical Sciences: Atomic, Molecular, Nuclear, Particle and Plasma Physics
Earth Sciences: Geochemistry
Engineering: Aerospace Engineering
Summary of the impact
The Planetary and Space Sciences (PSS) research group at The Open
University has designed, built and deployed space flight instrumentation
that is at the core of several iconic ESA (European Space Agency)
missions. Following on from that work, the OU team has led and supported
UK academia-industry consortia tendering to undertake ESA funded projects
preparing for future missions. The work undertaken by these consortia has
influenced ESA policy and practice, and helped enterprises in the UK Space
Sector to attract significant funding, win contracts to supply ESA with
goods and services, and move into new areas of business.
The underpinning research associated with this case study relates to
knowledge and understanding gained during The Open University's work in
both building and operating instrumentation for space missions.
The Planetary and Space Sciences research group at the OU has a strong
record of innovation in instrumentation for analytical measurements on
extraterrestrial samples (e.g. Romanek et al. 2004, Alexander et al.
1998). The PSS team also led the science on a series of space exploration
missions including building instruments to make in situ measurements on
Solar System bodies. The PSS group involvement in key European missions
- Leading Beagle2, the lander element of ESA's 2003 Mars
Express mission (Wright et al. 2003) including an innovative gas
analysis and stable isotope mass spectrometer package.
- Leading the Surface Science Package on the Huygens
probe (containing nine independent sensor subsystems) that determined
the physical nature and condition of Titan's surface at the landing
site, on the successful ESA Cassini-Huygens mission to Saturn
and Titan (Zarnecki et al. 2005).
- Leading the development of a gas analysis and mass spectrometry
instrument known as Ptolemy, which aims to measure cometary
hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen and oxygen, and their isotope ratios as part
of the Rosetta mission to sample a comet in 2014 (Morse et al.
Following on from the intensive development phases for these missions,
the PSS team worked on research contracts funded by ESA in preparation for
future missions, where their experience in science objectives, instrument
design, and operation played an important role in the success of the
Specific examples of ESA studies include:
- The L-VRAP Project: this study was an exercise to design a dual mass
spectrometer system capable of detection, quantification and
characterization of volatiles for future missions to the Moon — based on
gas handling and mass spectrometry instruments developed for Mars
Express (Beagle2) and Rosetta (Wright et al. 2003;
Wright et al 2012). The work made use of strong UK heritage in building
such instruments and anticipated renewed ESA interest in lunar missions
in the last year.
- The DUSTER Project: This ESA project proposed an alternative to the
use of a heavy vibrating mechanical pump to compress Martian atmosphere
to blow away dust that has settled on the solar panels and thermal
radiators of Mars landers. The Open University proposed an elegant
alternative system that makes use of day-night temperature variations to
fill and pressurise a container with Martian atmosphere. In the cold of
the Martian night the container is opened and atmosphere is chemically
trapped in the vessel. In the warmer daytime, with the container valve
shut, gas desorbs (Patent to Sheridan et al. 2010). The now pressurised
gas is directed via a moveable nozzle to remove fine dust from solar
panels and thermal radiator exchangers thus directly enhancing mission
performance and lifetime.
- Mars sample return and storage projects: The Open University team
worked on several ESA funded projects aiming to develop understanding
and expertise in preventing biological contamination of the target
celestial body (either Mars or Earth). The knowhow for this work had
been developed in earlier preparation for the Beagle 2 lander on
the Mars Express mission in order to meet Committee on Space Research
(COSPAR) rules on contamination.
References to the research
Alexander, C.M.O'D. et al (1998). The origin of chondritic macromolecular
organic matter: a carbon and nitrogen isotope study. (Meteoritics and
Planetary Science, 33 (4), pp. 603-622.
Morse, A.D., Morgan, G.H., Andrews, D.J., Barber, S.J., Leese, M.R.,
Sheridan, S., Wright, I.P. and Pillinger, C.T. (2009). Ptolemy — A GCMS to
measure the chemical and stable isotopic composition of a comet. In: Rosetta
— ESA's Mission to the Origin of the Solar System, (eds. R.Schulz,
C.Alexander, H.Boehnhardt and K.H.Glassmeier), Springer, ISBN
Romanek, C.S. et al. (1994). Record of fluid-rock interactions on Mars
from the meteorite ALH84001. Nature, 372 (6507), pp. 655-657.
Wright, I.P., Sims, M.R., and Pillinger C.T. (2003), Scientific
objectives of the Beagle 2 lander, Acta Astronautica, Volume 52, 219-2.
Wright, I. P.; Sheridan, S.; Morse, A. D.; Barber, S. J.; Merrifield, J.
A.; Waugh, L. J.; Howe, C. J.; Gibson, E. K. and Pillinger, C. T. (2012).
L-VRAP-a lunar volatile resources analysis package for lunar exploration.
Planetary and Space Science, 74, pp 254-263.
Zarnecki, J.C. et al. (2005). A soft solid surface on Titan as revealed
by the Huygens Surface Science Package. Nature, 438 (7069), pp. 792-795.
Sheridan, Jarvis and Morgan (2010). Miniature valve for helium flow
control. The Open University, PCT/GB2009/002584.
2011- 2012: €298,779 awarded by ESA to Professor Colin Pillinger for the
project `L-VRAP: Lunar Volatile (Resources Analysis) Package for Lunar
Exploration'. Partners included Astrium Ltd, Fluid Gravity Engineering
Ltd, RAL Space.
2013: €182,000 awarded by ESA to Dr Manish Patel (Lead partner Magna
Parva Ltd) for the project entitled `DUSTER: Dust Unseating from Solar
panels and Thermal radiators by Exhaling Robot'. Partners included Magna
Parva Ltd (Lead) and Fluid Gravity Engineering Ltd.
2006-2009: €134,500 awarded to Dr Simeon Barber by ESA (Lead partner
Systems Engineering and Assessment Ltd) for a series of four projects
entitled `Mars Sample Return Planetary Protection'. Partner SEA Ltd.
Details of the impact
The work of The Open University Planetary and Space Sciences group has
had significant impact through academic-industry partnerships, supporting
UK space sector and government agencies. Our research can be very applied
in nature, and we "speak the language" of industry and engineers, meaning
we can work well in multidisciplinary and cross-sector teams. Here we use
a series of case studies to illustrate The Open University contribution to
academic-industry partnerships that have attracted ESA funding, won
contracts to supply ESA, and supported enterprises to move into new areas
of business, all of which help to safeguard jobs in advanced manufacturing
in the UK. Some of the projects we have undertaken have also influenced
ESA's ability to develop global partnerships.
The first example, the L-VRAP (Lunar Volatile Resources Analysis Package
2011-2012) project within ESA's Lunar Lander programme, initially
attracted €300k to a consortium led by The Open University (including RAL
Space, EADS Astrium Ltd, Fluid Gravity Engineering (FGE), and the NASA
Astromaterials Research Office, USA). The L-VRAP project allowed EADS
Astrium, an established prime contractor in space hardware, to be involved
in Lunar Lander design with a view to future opportunities to tender for
contracts with ESA in any eventual mission implementation. The L-VRAP
study allowed FGE, a UK based scientific consultancy specializing in
computational physics, to apply its expertise in a new area of research,
Jim Merrifield of Fluid Gravity Engineering commented:
`Partnering with The Open University on the L-VRAP project has enabled us
to restart our line of activity in in-space plume modelling which has
allowed us to make a stronger case for proposing repeat business.
Additionally, certain aspects of the plume regolith interaction needed to
support L-VRAP have enabled us to participate in contracted work concerned
with the sub-sonic liberation of dust from solar panels on Mars. This is a
new area of work for us, both in terms of application and flow regime.'
The L-VRAP project has also had significant impact in the European Space
Agency because of the recent renewed interest in international
partnerships for a lunar lander mission. Berengere Houdou, Head of the ESA
Lunar Lander Office commented:
`The work of The Open University team led to the design of a package to
analyse complex chemistry and potentially valuable resources on the Moon.
This has provided us with an important input for discussions with
potential international partners, with a view to developing an
international lunar exploration programme.'
The second example, the DUSTER project (2012-2013), is led by the UK
based space engineering consultancy Magna Parva, with partners FGE and
makes use of a key piece of Open University knowhow, chemical pumping. The
initial work has attracted over €450k to UK industry and placed them in an
excellent position to win the contract to build devices to extend the
lifetime of future martian explorers built by ESA. Miles Ashcroft of Magna
`The successful contract win with ESA to perform the DUSTER project was
heavily influenced by the ability of MPL to be able to partner with Fluid
Gravity Engineering and The Open University. In particular the benefit of
utilizing existent practical research and a knowledge base in the
applicable field. Additionally it is expected that this will provide
on-going benefits as the developed technology is pulled through into
In our third example, The Open University partnered with SEA (Systems
Engineering and Assessment), in 4 ESA studies (2006-2009) to help
implement planetary protection strategies for Mars missions. The work was
led by SEA, and the partnership with the OU allowed them to move into a
new area of business, training scientists and engineers in European
industry and research organisations in building microbially clean
spacecraft. The training materials developed by The Open University were
delivered to Thales Alenia Space (Italy — prime contractor for ExoMars)
who have delivered training to over 600 people working on ESA space
mission programmes in 6 countries across Europe. Subsequently, SEA won
contracts from ESA to undertake work on precision cleaning for returned
Mars sample curation. This work is of strategic importance to the UK,
since it is prioritising sample curation in the post-ExoMars
Finally, the impact of the Planetary and Space science group capability
extends to several international partners. One such example is CSEM, a
Swiss manufacturer of MEMS (microelectromechanical systems) for clocks and
watches, for whom a €400k ESA project with The Open University enabled a
move into the manufacture of MEMS-based miniature gas chromatograph-mass
spectrometry equipment for space missions and other applications.
Sources to corroborate the impact
External sources corroborating impact:
Beneficiaries who could be contacted to corroborate impact:
- ESA Report 103345. Lunar Volatiles Package for Lunar Exploration
(L-VRAP) (2012) http://esamultimedia.esa.int/docs/gsp/C103345ExS.pdf
- Lester Waugh, of EADS Astrium reflects on the positive impact of work
on Beagle 2 upon the European Space Agency. http://www.independent.co.uk/student/magazines/enginnering-with-esa-mars-attracts-427097.html
- Systems Engineering and Assessment case study on their planetary
protection business highlighting the Open
- Head of the Lunar Lander Office, European Space Agency
- Director, Magna Parva
- Senior scientist, Fluid Gravity Engineering
- Senior Engineer, Thales Alenia Space (Italy) — customer for the OU/SEA
planetary protection training materials
- Head of Imaging systems — RAL Space