We spoke to Nick about why secure space technology is so important and what motivates him to work in this exciting area.
Image of Nick James
Nick James, an executive engineer in our space team, points to the location on the 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenkocomet comet where we helped land the Rosetta spacecraft in 2014.
 

What space technology do we have in BAE Systems?

 
There’s lots! Here in the UK we’re particularly strong on satellite ground station equipment such as high performance signal processors, which we supply to the European Space Agency, Goonhilly and others. This allows customers to receive and process very weak signals from spacecraft a very long way away – sometimes over a billion kilometres. This ability to detect and process weak signals is also useful in other military areas.
 
What we’re really enjoying at the moment is our work on ‘new space’. This is where we’re developing shoe-boxed sized, relatively inexpensive satellites to perform communications and surveillance work that previously required satellites the size of a bus. Combined with plummeting launch costs – you can now launch a small satellite for about £200K – this means we can do things far more rapidly and cost-effectively than before.
 
One of our key areas in new space is Software Defined Radios, or SDRs. In ‘old space’ you needed to do most of your computational work on the ground, given the expense of putting radiation hardened processing power into space. Now though, we can now make SDR payloads for satellites that can actually process information in space rather than bouncing signals to ground stations to do that work. This speeds up comms and surveillance by reducing the massive volumes of data that need to be transmitted.
 
One of our key skills is making things secure and resilient. We’re currently working with customers to make sure their satellites are cyber secure, given the importance of space assets to both defence and commercial use. Satellites are controlled by radio frequencies from the ground, which means anyone with the right radio equipment can try to hack them.

What makes space such an exciting job?

 

We’ve also been involved in landing spacecraft on several planets and a comet. Nasa’s recent Mars Rover has BAE Systems equipment both on the vehicle itself (radiation hardened electronics supplied by BAE Systems Inc) and at the station receiving the signals on earth (Goonhilly in Cornwall, which uses our SDRs). We’ve also helped land craft on Venus, Mercury, and the Rosetta comet while it was 800 million kms from earth.

There’s lots going on around the business and with the help of the CTO, we’re now starting to pull together all our capability to create new projects. There has never been a more exciting time to be involved in space at BAE Systems.

Why is space so important to defence?

 
In a nutshell, comms and surveillance. Space allows you to get global coverage in both areas at much lower cost. If you’re using space for surveillance, it’s also much more difficult for others to interfere with than aircraft.
There are a growing number of Anti-satellite (Asat) capabilities operating now, which either use kinetic force to ‘ram’ other satellites or detonate next to them. That’s why we’re looking at constellations of satellites, to provide much more resilience if some were to be destroyed.
 
It’s really important for defence to maintain a space capability, as without it you're effectively blind. Either you rely on someone else or you go without, which would put you at a huge disadvantage. At least one company in the UK is also looking at rapid launch capabilities, which would allow you to launch a satellites at very short notice to provide rapid coverage when required.

What keeps you enthusiastic working in space?

 
I’ve always been really interested in space since watching the Apollo moon landings during my school days. There’s something about using rockets to put any technology into space that gives it that added buzz. 
 
Kids are the same today, as I’m also a STEM ambassador so go into schools to encourage an interest in engineering. As soon as you bring space into the conversation it really brings it to life, as children are just naturally interested straight away.
 
I’ve always managed to include space in my career and can only see that continuing, given the increasing number of opportunities in new space. I’d recommend it to anyone.
Vector image of a satellite

BAE Systems Space

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