Celebrating 60 years of work in space research
26 Apr 2022



60 years ago the UK became the world’s third space faring nation and, with the launch of Ariel 1 on the 26th April 1962, crossed the final frontier for the very first time.

Artists impression of Ariel 1

​​​​​Artists impression of Ariel 1.

Credit: NASA
This year also marks the 60th year of RAL Space’s work with missions in space, both on Ariel 1 and the Canadian Alouette 1 which launched in September 1962.  

A long heritage  

While we celebrate the anniversary of our activities in space, RAL Space can trace our heritage back to our predecessor, the Radio Research Station (later the Radio and Space Research Station), which began ground based monitoring of the ionosphere – the layer of charged particles between the Earth’s atmosphere and space – 30 years earlier in 1931. RAL Space still monitors the ionosphere both from the ground and in space, and now holds over 90 years of continuous data.  

Since then, RAL Space has gone from strength to strength with involvement in hundreds of instruments on board satellites, ground-based astronomy and Earth monitoring, science research and technology development projects.  

The UK’s national space lab 

We have been involved in some of the major international science missions over the last 60 years, from the European ERS satellites​, carrying twin instruments developed by RAL Space which monitored sea surface temperature for two decades, to many of the major solar observing missions, and more recently, the James Webb Space Telescope which has just started its work to observe the universe.  

We also work on many smaller scale, early-stage projects which help to advance scientific thinking or technology to a point where it is ready for bigger investment. 

One example of this is our spectroscopy team which takes concepts for new, high-precision laser-based hyperspectral sensing from blue sky thinking through to the development of instrument prototypes. Over the years they have identified many terrestrial applications for their work, including developing a new kind of instant, breath analyser to diagnose sepsis and a sensor to monitor the efficiency of carbon capture and storage technologies that are crucial to help us meet our climate targets. 

Developing new instrumentation for space is hard, but our teams are experts at developing new concepts or taking existing ground-based techniques and refining them so they are light enough to get into space and robust enough to work when they get there. The spectroscopy team are looking forward to flying their first instruments in space onboard the European Space Agency ESP-MAACS/CubeMap mission – another first for RAL Space and for the UK.  

Image: Artist impression of the ESP-MACCS constellation in orbit. Credit: GomSpace

​Here for our communities 

The future, for RAL Space, will always support the needs of the UK space community. Our job, as the UK’s national space lab is to stay ahead of what is needed by our industry and academic partners and to think about how we can enable the scientific breakthroughs and innovative everyday services of the future. This is why we are building the National Satellite Test Facility – to enable bigger, more complex satellites to be built and tested in the UK. It’s also why, through the Centre for Environmental Data Analysis, we’re undertaking a study to develop a clear roadmap for UK Research and Innovation to deliver carbon neutral digital research infrastructure by 2040 or earlier. 

We continue to pioneer science research and develop and test new technologies. The Speqtre mission will demonstrate the next generation of secure communications which will protect everyday activities from online banking to smart home devices over the next decades.  

Professor Chris Mutlow, Director of RAL Space said:  

“Over the years, hundreds of brilliant scientists, engineers, technicians and support staff have all worked together to make RAL Space what it is today. I am proud to be a part of that history but mostly of our team. Together we have reached all the inner planets of our solar system, Saturn, a comet, the Moon and kept a watchful eye on our Sun. We have enabled our friends from across the sector to access space and to understand more about our planet and place in the universe. RAL Space may be one of the oldest members of the global space sector, but I believe we remain one of the most innovative, exciting places to work.” 

Find out more about the history of RAL Space