UCL Research Domains



UCL has a wide range of interests and engagements in space-related activities and has contributed to numerous ESA space mission with hardware/software; satellite operations; data analysis; science research and publications.


Earth Observation

Theme leader: Professor Julienne Stroeve, Department of Earth Sciences

Satellite observations enable scientists to monitor changes in remote and inhospitable parts of the world. Over the last 40 years, there has been rapid growth in the number of satellite missions around the world, with the European Space Agency (ESA) playing a key role in helping to monitor polar regions. In particular, ESA has launched satellites that help scientists monitor how sea ice thickness and ice sheet mass balance is changing. 

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The Earth Science Department at UCL supports a number of ESA satellite missions, including support for cryospheric studies, processing satellite imagery and sharing data with the broader science community.  UCL scientists first demonstrated how radar altimeters can be used to map sea ice thickness, leading to the design of CryoSat-2 for polar monitoring and launch of the satellite in 2010. A data portal developed at UCL in conjunction with CPOM and ESA provides updated data and images of sea ice thickness from CryoSat-2.  UCL ES scientists are currently funded under ESA grants to improve these sea ice thickness retrievals as well as derive snow depths over Arctic sea ice, a key data gap for polar studies. 

In addition, Sentinel-3B was launched in April 2018, joining Sentinel-3A (launched in February 2016) in a constellation aimed at providing optimal coverage and revisit times of the global oceans and the cryosphere. These satellites continue a 26-year heritage of ESA altimetry missions. As an Expert Support Laboratory for ice surfaces to the ESA Sentinel-3 STM Mission Performance Centre, UCL's Mullard Space Science Laboratory is currently leading a study of Sentinel-3B’s performance, cross-calibration of Sentinel-3B with Sentinel-3A over sea ice and land ice surfaces and comparison with contemporaneous Cryosat-2 LRM, SAR and SARin measurements. 

Economics, Innovation and Public Policy 

Theme Lead: Professor Mariana Mazzucato, UCL Institute of Innovation and Public Purpose (IIPP)

The IIPP aims to inform space policy by directing space innovation activities towards maximum socio-economic benefit. This includes: public private partnerships in space; mission-oriented policies; and rethinking public value and public purpose in space. The IIPP’s approach builds upon its work on market creating ‘mission-oriented’ policies, as opposed to traditional ‘market-fixing’ frameworks steering public agencies worldwide.

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In this context, creating a strong European space innovation system is a key mission for ESA. ESA is exploring new ways of partnering with the increasing number of space-faring nations, private space firms and other non-space entities. It seeks socio-economic impacts, including jobs/growth and addressing societal grand challenges. What is needed to create demand for new space services and products to enable a commercial lunar ecosystem in Europe?

Centre for Space Exochemistry Data

Theme Lead: Professor Giovanna Tinetti, Department of Physics and Astronomy

UCL CSED is a new interdisciplinary initiative that will facilitate connections between observational data from space missions, deep learning techniques and quantum physics modelling of complex molecules.

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CSED has grown out of the Exoplanet and Extragalactic Astrophysics Groups at UCL. The Centre is based within the Harwell Space Cluster, a strategic location that facilitates intersections with public organisations, including European Space Agency (ESA), STFC’s RAL-Space, Satellite Applications Catapult and leading private companies from the space sector and start-ups.

CSED is an accelerator of the connection between the academic environment and other sectors that will attract private investments. It serves as an incubator for disruptive ideas to create spin-offs and develop partnerships in the industrial domain. To date, two successful start-ups have been created for the commercial exploitation of UCL exoplanet-related activities.

CSED fosters educational initiatives connected to exoplanet science and STEM, including plans for a national and international roll-out of the successful EduTwinkle and ORBYTS programmes currently run in the London area.

Materials Science

Theme Lead: Professor Kwang Choy, Institute for Materials Discovery

The Institute for Materials Discovery’s interests in advanced materials for space include:

  • in-space propulsion technologies;
  • nanotechnology;
  • modelling, simulation, information technology and processing;
  • and materials, structures, mechanical systems and manufacture
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We have demonstrated CIGS solar cells with superior radiation tolerance that are lightweight and can be deposited on a flexible substrate.

A cutting edge Electrostatic Assisted Vapour Deposition (ESAVD) method has been developed that can deposit high-efficiency CIGS/CZTS thin films using non-vacuum conditions, that have high uniformity, with no secondary phase. Fully non-vacuum processed CIGS solar cells absorber and Ag nanowires based transparent TCO has reached efficiency above 14%.

We are interested in the application of nanomaterials/nanotubes in satellite applications in the areas of structures, electrically conductive polymer composites, sensor technology and wear resistance. 

Off-world Living

Theme Lead: Professor Andrew Edkins, UCL’s Bartlett Real Estate Institute

This theme explores issues around off-world living, particularly related to the Moon and Mars. While the construction of an off-world living environment poses many significant engineering and science challenges, the longer-term brings with it challenges related to bio-medicine, psychology, law, education, resilience, and independence.

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Off-world areas of research would include:

  • Robotics, for exploration, building, maintenance and service provision;
  • Building materials development and manipulation;
  • Residence design including ‘village’ level design;
  • Psychological issues related to remoteness and self-reliance;
  • Space policy issues related to the creation of an Off-world living environment including new approaches to organisational networking and international collaboration;
  • On-site education and training, particularly where real-time contact with Earth is impossible (i.e. Mars and beyond);
  • Cultural impact (both on Earth and Off-world)

    Orbital Dynamics and Space Situational Awareness

    Theme Lead: Professor Marek Ziebart, Space Geodesy and Navigation Laboratory at UCL 

    This group works on a range of topics in astrodynamics, space geodesy and navigation. Primarily a modelling and algorithm development group we also have some experience in hardware development. 

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    This ranges from orbital dynamics and the modelling of the behaviour of atomic clocks in the space environment, through to satellite signal modelling and exploitation, and onto planet scale reference frames and surface modelling. This has expanded over the last eight years to include the analysis and modelling of space debris and topics in space situational awareness.

    The group has worked for several years on the Galileo spacecraft surface force models, which are an intrinsic component of the system. It has actively supported ESA in the endeavour to make Galileo the most accurate and robust satellite navigation system for scientific applications.

    This effort is currently funded by ESA and has recently been extended. The group has applied its long-term understanding of the impact of the space environment on the trajectories of space vehicles to the space debris problem.

    This is an evolving challenge relating to space situational awareness, space traffic management and ultimately secured access to space.

    Planetary Science

    Theme Lead: Dr Dominic Papineau, Centre for Planetary Sciences, Department of Space and Climate Physics, UCL

    The Centre for Planetary Sciences at UCL/Birkbeck (CPS) is one of the UK’s leading centres for planetary and exoplanetary science. It houses expertise in understanding planets from their deep interiors, through their surfaces and atmospheres, to their space environment. This expertise is complemented by world leaders in astronomy, terrestrial and solar science, life and chemical sciences.

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    The CPS is a collaboration between three UCL departments – Physics and Astronomy, Earth Sciences and Space and Climate Physics (MSSL) – and with the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Birkbeck. It is primarily a “virtual” research centre, and comprises researchers within the following groups at UCL and Birkbeck:

    The Planetary Physics & Exoplanets Group, Dept of Physics and Astronomy, UCL; The Imaging Group, Dept of Space & Climate Physics, UCL; The Planetary Science Group, Dept of Space and Climate Physics, UCL;  Some researchers within the following groups in the Dept of Earth Sciences , UCL: Crystallography and Mineral Physics; Deep Volatiles; The London Geochemistry and Isotope Centre; Micropaleontology; Precambrian Research; Rock and Ice Physics Laboratory; The Department of Earth & Planetary Sciences, Birkbeck.

    CPS members are playing or have played key, and sometimes leading, roles in planetary and exoplanetary space missions led by ESA or with ESA’s involvement such as Giotto, Mars Express, Venus Express, Cassini-Huygens, Rosetta, ExoMars Rosalind Franklin, JUICE (Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer) and Comet Interceptor.  These involvements have included scientific and hardware activities.

    CPS members have significant roles in ESA’s flagship Exoplanet missions, PLATO (PLAnetary Transits and Oscillations of stars) and ARIEL (Atmospheric Remote-sensing Exoplanet Large-survey).

    Members of the CPS have led technology developments related to both in-situ measurement and data production including sensors, planetary penetrators, imagers and image processing algorithms. They have led and contributed to a number of successful ESA contracts in this area.

    The Centre also continues to be involved in the European Union-funded Europlanet project that brings together Europe’s major planetary science centres. 

    Project Management and Systems Engineering

    Theme Lead: Dr Michael Emes, Centre for Systems Engineering, Department of Space and Climate Physics, UCL.

    Through the Centre for Systems Engineering UCL (UCLse) has been actively teaching project management and systems engineering drawing inspiration from the space sector for over 20 years, and have undertaken research projects in space project management and systems engineering.

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    Most large and complex projects (in all sectors) face difficulties delivering the required technology performance within their budget and schedule constraints. MSSL has been delivering project management training on behalf of ESA, with Prof Smith and Dr Emes having now delivered training to over 50 trainees, with a primary focus on effective risk management across ESA’s projects.

    UCLse has now expanded to deliver a refreshed programme of Space Systems Engineering training based around the Sentinel-2 mission, and have now successfully delivered two cohorts of the 11-day programme to 30 trainees. This training draws upon a number of key principles, including the value of taking an integrated approach to systems engineering and project management.

    UCLse hopes that engagement with ESA will allow us to identify areas of mutual interest for research, and enable access to data and staff to improve the depth and quality of its research.

    Space Astrophysics

    Theme Lead: Professor Dhiren Kataria, Department of Space and Climate Physics

    The scope of activity at UCL related to space science instrumentation development includes:

    • Design and develop novel instrumentation based on cutting edge technologies with applications across a range of strategically important scientific areas;
    • Develop instrument and technologies for space-based science and commercial missions;
    • Teaching and training;
    • Provision of instrument engineering expertise.
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    UCL (mainly through MSSL) has flown instruments on more than 200 sounding rocket flights and over 40 space missions and have developed extensive in-house facilities and engineering capabilities underpinned by a large pool of expert and experienced engineering staff. MSSL, in particular, has benefited from the co-location of science and engineering expertise and includes four internationally competitive technology and innovative R&D groups developing bespoke technologies for space missions.

    UCL plans to create an interdisciplinary platform for technology development across a large number of the proposed ESA_Lab@UCL interest areas and to develop technology roadmaps, identify key technologies and provide a framework to facilitate their development and exploitation. A particular focus will be to identify technologies that are generic in nature with applications in several of the areas of ESA_Lab@UCL research interests. Examples include mass spectrometry, detection, imaging, sensor and radiation technologies, bespoke electronics including ASICs and FPGAs, and novel materials for structures (see Material Science).

    Space Law and Regulation

    Theme Lead: Dr Madeline Carr, Department of Science, Technology, Engineering and Public Policy (STEaPP)

    STEaPP research focuses on the complex policy problems emerging in the 21st century that arise from continued innovation and application of science, technology and engineering. Work explores both the legal and regulatory problems themselves and also the future of policymaking innovation and international policy cooperation.

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    Legal and regulatory frameworks will help to shape future innovation and Space 4.0 developments.  They pose numerous challenges and simply adopting frameworks developed for other regulatory contexts is highly problematic.  Lessons learned from the difficulties of applying international law to cyberspace will have currency in this context as well. STEaPP and ISPL can assist the ESA by providing the following:

    • Research into the future of space policy and law
    • Identification of areas of growth and opportunity for the EU in terms of leading regulatory approaches
    • Examination of the likely implications and outcomes of alternative policies and laws
    • Critical evaluation of security-related regulation and legal frameworks with a focus on the promotion of international peace and stability
    • Critical evaluation of the potential links between international cooperation on the regulation of space and the promotion of the SDGs
    • Research into the development of international norms and customary law related to the responsible use of space.

      Space Medicine

      Theme Lead: Dr Iya Whiteley, Centre for Space Medicine (CSM), Department of Space and Climate Physics

      The CSM focuses on the facilitation of human space exploration and the improvement of quality of life on Earth through open innovation and cross-disciplinary application of techniques and technology. The CSM is inherently interdisciplinary involving BioMedical, Cognitive, Robotics/Engineering, IT and Space Sciences. The CSM has excellent links across the UK Space Biomedical community, within ESA’s human space flight programme, within the Russian Space programme (including IBMP and the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Centre (GCTC), and NASA.

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      The CSM is an incubator for novel concepts and IPs. It fosters entrepreneurship and new business creation attacks commercial and private funding. UCL boasts world-class strengths in medicine, life science, physics, space science and engineering. It is uniquely placed to pursue interdisciplinary programmes in life, medical and engineering science within a space biomedical context.

      While the CSM plans an ambitious and novel programme, the concept of space-inspired technology in the health sector is not new. Space Tourism is rapidly growing in the UK and globally, and will require new type of professions, innovations and economic approaches. Space Tourism offers potential opportunities both for research and for industrial engagement.  E.g., UCL already maintains good relations with Virgin Galactic. UCL can also engage with US space tourism industry as it evolves and has a novel educational program or innovations to offer in this area.

      Space Policy, Governance and Security

      Theme Lead: Professor Serge Plattard, UCL Space Domain

      UCL has focused areas of interest within the broad area of space policy, dealing with topics central for pursuing and expanding space activities at congested, contested and competitive environment. These areas include space exploration, exploitation of space resources, and space security including space surveillance and tracking, space situational awareness, and space traffic management.

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      Space exploration - The mechanisms for international scientific space exploration are well known and currently constitute the base framework for ESA cooperation. A shared vision is necessary, enabling a common human endeavour for space exploration. Although advisory instances already exist for the Moon and Mars, the optimisation of human resources and funds utilisation should be made more efficient. Raising the national flag is past policy, yet still very common, whereas a major paradigm shift is needed to address the changing ‘New Space’. This is even truer when considering human space exploration. UCL expertise would help in elaborating scenarios/models along those lines.

      Exploitation of space resources - Landing on comets and asteroids, including possibilities of returning samples to Earth, has made enormous progress recently; and plans to return on the Moon by the end of next decade may necessitate new space activities beyond sending back to Earth materials of strategic/scientific interest, e.g. mining celestial bodies for in situ use and fuelling exploration activities.

      Space security – Without further intervention near-Earth space is almost certain to become increasingly congested, especially with the advent of LEO constellations made of hundreds/thousands of satellites. To ensure a long-term safe and sustainable space environment, a set of (incomplete) guidelines was endorsed by the COPUOS in June 2018. Yet, starting with the 2007 UN guidelines on space debris, transparency and confidence-building measures in addition to those guidelines, there is still enormous work to achieve effective space traffic management. Of critical concern is whether international agreements can be found on a timescale comparable with the rate of congestion.

      Space Weather

      Theme Lead: Professor Lucie Green, Department of Space and Climate Physics (MSSL)

      MSSL has a demonstrated track record in space weather across the following areas:

      • Instrumentation
      • Space weather mission concepts
      • Data Analysis and modelling
      • Data access and metadata
      • Policy
      • Teaching
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      MSSL’s strength is in the breadth of scientific research that spans the Sun through to the magnetosphere and the radiation belts and in the development of new space-based instrumentation. UCL’s space weather ambitions are to:

      • Maintain leadership in the ESA Lagrange mission through the management of the in situ instrument package and provision of a solar wind analyser. Maintain momentum toward launch in early 2020s;
      • Provide hosted sensors on satellites;
      • Become a centre of CME modelling and forecasting solar eruptions;
      • Become a centre for radiation belt modelling;
      • Become the “go-to” institution in the training of science and instrumentation for space weather;
      • Develop concepts for the next generation, lightweight instrumentation through the use of novel techniques outside those currently used;
      • Continue collaboration with industry on mission development, education and public policy.

      Telecommunication for Space 

      Theme leader: Dr Katarzyna Balakier, Department of Electronic and Electrical Engineering (EEE)

      Satellite communications is a fundamental functionality present in every satellite mission. In addition, high throughput communication satellites enable broadcasting as well as the provision of broadband services to all remote locations around the globe.

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      UCL academic and research staff has the expertise which can support future developments in data transmission links, including between a satellite and a ground segment and inter-satellite. Moreover, we have developed technology which can be used for data processing and signal routing within the communication payload, such as antennas, phase arrays, microelectronics, RF over fibre links, transceivers, coherent detectors, frequency converters, amplifiers, and others.

      The researchers at UCL EEE, in addition to working on physical layer and hardware development, have been investigating higher layers of communication theory, signal design and data processing algorithms.

      Satellite constellation networks are being explored within the Computer Science department, which work is relevant in the context of recent developments in the architectures of LEO constellations.

      UCL is excelling in the development of cutting-edge terrestrial telecommunication systems operating both in RF and optical domains. We will aim to leverage on our ongoing work and know-how on communication and connected technologies to pursue an effective partnership with ESA and increase our collaboration with industrial partners operating in the space sector, to implement equivalent systems for satellite communication.