A Spire nanosatellite © Spire Global UK

UK-built nanosatellites set for launch

The satellites will monitor shipping movements from low-Earth orbit.

Two shoebox-sized supercomputer satellites, built in the UK to monitor shipping movements from low-Earth orbit, are due for launch on 28 September.

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The nanosatellites, which received more than £6 million in funding from the UK Space Agency, will join more than 100 other space objects providing support to maritime trade.

Made by Spire Global UK in Glasgow, each device has an onboard supercomputer with machine-learning algorithms that can provide “hyper-accurate predictions” of the locations of boats, according to the UK Space Agency.

The nanosatellites will calculate the arrival times of boats at ports to help port businesses and authorities manage busy docks safely, the agency said.

The machines will be transported into space on a Soyuz launcher from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome in Russia at 12:20pm GMT.

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“Satellites are shrinking in size and growing in ambition,” said Amanda Solloway MP, UK Minister for Science, Research and Innovation. “A satellite the size of a shoebox may sound like a gimmick, but these nanosatellites are driving a revolution in how we observe planet Earth – with each holding the power and intelligence of a regular satellite.

“The Government is ensuring the UK remains at the forefront of this revolution and the Spire nanosatellites we have backed will help us do just that.”

Engineers at Spire Global UK designed, built and tested the spacecraft at the company’s Glasgow headquarters. The nanosatellites were developed under the European Space Agency (ESA) Pioneer programme – a partnership co-funded by the UK Space Agency.

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Meanwhile, the Government is also supporting the development of spaceports across the country, which will allow satellites to be launched from the UK soil for the first time in the coming years.

Reader Q&A: What altitude must satellites reach to stay permanently in orbit?

Asked by: Ludo Webb, Manorhamilton

Getting satellites into orbit is hard enough – they need to be hurled into space with enough energy to reach around 26,000km/h. But staying in orbit means avoiding losing energy to the Earth’s atmospheric drag. While the official threshold of space is 100km above the Earth, the effects of the atmosphere can be detected much higher.

Even Hubble, which orbits at almost 600km, could be brought down by the creeping effect of drag. Only satellites in orbits several tens of thousands of kilometres above the Earth can be regarded as effectively permanent, though even they are not totally immune to atmospheric drag.

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