Fledgling space firm set to spread its wings at Westcott

22/06/22 | Tenant News

A business helping drive research in the space sector is set to go from strength to strength at Westcott.

Plastron, based at the Innovation Centre, has been established by Chris Smith, managing director of European Astrotech on the park, along with Charlie Young who oversees design and commercial director Graham Schulz.

The trio have more than 40 years’ experience in spacecraft propulsion system design, test and launch-site operations across scientific and communication satellite programmes with major organisations, including the European Space Agency (ESA), Airbus, OHB, Thales and Nammo.

Charlie said: “We are looking to raise funding to set up an advanced technology centre at Westcott that is an enhanced clean room capable of being used for hazardous work such as pressurisation and propellant loading.

“We are seeing start-up businesses entering the market bringing new technologies, taking risks, and working differently to the conventional space sector.

“As a result, we identified a huge gap between the knowledge and wisdom of the conventional space sector and its conservative ways of working and ‘new space’ which is all about agility and speed. Key areas such as safety and quality were being overlooked and with that brings risk.”

Plastron will offer a range of satellite services in collaboration with European Astrotech, including integrated satellite propulsion test operations, oversight of launch operations from pre-launch to set-down, safety training on propulsion hardware for undergraduates and safe handling and transfer of propellants for launch site operators.

Charlie added: “There are a lot of businesses inventing new technologies to go into space but first you have to prove it’s going to work and that means you have to use test facilities to ensure they are developed to the right standard.”

“We are offering UK Spaceports new safety test facilities in the UK that will future proof their operations going forward. During lockdown we designed the new Plastron facility and came up with a concept which is TRL (Technology Readiness Level) 8, meaning it's ready for implementation into an existing facility or technology system.”

The centre’s air control system will be the most advanced available in the space industry. It is based on a year of research undertaken by experts at Southampton University and draws on work done in the NHS in the last six months on how the Covid virus sheds off a human body in hospital settings.

“We can actually show that we can be clean enough for sending experiments to other planets and not re-contaminate those planets with biological matter,” said Charlie.

The new centre will be based at Westcott and is designed to meet all requirements for assembly, test, transportation and launch. More details can be seen here

The proposed project is already attracting interest from across the UK and Europe. Potential clients include space ports and test sites as it gives them the capability to provide satellite customers with high quality ESA-standard facilities.

The key business strands of Plastron are safety, quality, productivity, and environmental responsibility with a lot of research being currently being carried out into making space ‘greener.’

Charlie said: “One of the supply chain initiatives we are working on is Near Zero by Design, an international collaboration with five co-founders, whereby we develop a capability to help businesses achieve national/international targets for reducing their environmental footprint in a sustainable and resilient way.” 

This has already been presented at Paris Space Week with further seminars planned for the ESA ESTEC open day in September and the Space Tech Expo Europe event in November while Charlie has also presented at the National Space Centre.

Meanwhile, an intern from the Space Placements in Industry scheme is working on a report with Charlie and Chris looking at the environmental impact of launcher propellants which will be published as a white paper for the UK Space Agency SPIN in the next few weeks.

Plastron has recently started a two-year project at the ESA Incubation service at Harwell, which is hosted by STFC. This will focus on developing a digital platform to support the R&D of new space technology in line with European space standards. This well help reduce the risk of further space debris from poor quality technology as well as accelerate routes-to-market nationally and internationally for qualified for space applications. The aim is that this will support increased incubation and skilled jobs creation at Westcott as well as across diverse regions of the UK and help integrate and increase native use of test facilities and spaceports.

One of the ambitions is to combine the specialist facility with the product development platform to introduce new supply-for new areas, such as microgravity-based industrial research. 

Charlie added: “When built, our new facility will enable companies to quarantine their experiments from their laboratory – all the way into space. We will be able to launch it into space on a dedicated platform and then bring the payload back down to earth, keep it quarantined and take it back to the laboratory, so it is not compromised.”

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