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In Space: 2 deployers and 6 ultra-miniaturized satellites

20 March 2020

Fast growing SME Alba Orbital, comes to the Higgs Centre for Innovation to test their ground-breaking space hardware.

The Higgs Centre for Innovation offers state-of-the-art facilities that are primarily designed for the small satellite community. A ground-breaking new business incubation hub, created by the Science & Technology Facilities Council (STFC) in partnership with the University of Edinburgh – the Higgs’ USP is that it offers appropriate clean-room environments, with the right equipment, in one place, that are ready to be used by business, the University community, and research institutions. Labs and the site are secure, and processes are designed specifically to enable easy and efficient access by users.

Alba Orbital – a fast growing high-tech SME that designs, builds and tests the world’s most advanced ultra-miniaturized spacecraft has being using the facilities at the Higgs. We catch up with Alba Orbital Founder and CEO Tom Walkinshaw to get the low down on the company’s tech and his experience of being a Higgs commercial

Great to meet you Tom, how have you been using the Higgs Centre for Innovation?

“On our first visit to the Higgs we were testing our picosatellite deployer pod - Albapod v2.”

What is a picosatellite deployer pod?

“A picosatellite deployer pod is essentially the ‘box’ that houses a pico-sat during launch. Small satellites tend to be launched into space as a piggyback ride on a bigger mission – like a passenger on a plane paying for a ticket to travel. But in order to be accepted onto that mission, the space agency or commercial space company who owns the launch needs to be satisfied that any additional piggyback payloads are safe – that if the integrity of the payload is compromised in flight, that it’s not going to affect the space craft or other payloads. The deployer pod provides this assurance by fully enclosing the picosat payload inside the box – and then releasing it when instructed.”

So, you help companies building small satellites; to transport them safely into space?

“Yes, we provide the container in which small satellites can be transported into space.”

You returned to the Higgs, didn’t you; what were you testing on your second visit?

“As well as our deployer pod, we are also building a next generation picosatellite. Weight and volume limits are critical on picosatellites, and so we have developed our PocketQubes which are miniaturised small satellites measuring 5x5x5 cm and are 1/8th of volume of the current standard nanosatellites. This provides organisations with an EVEN lower cost option for going into space; making it more affordable for more people.”

“On our second visit to the Higgs, we did the final testing of our deployer pod and we tested two of the PocketQubes going in the pod.”

What was your experience of the Higgs facilities?

“We used the shaker table to do the ‘vibe’ or vibration testing – which is necessary to test and qualify for ‘flight worthiness’. What is great about the facilities at the Higgs is that all of the equipment is located within an ISO 7 cleanroom – so it means you can leave ‘stuff’ out, without worrying about contamination – which is particularly important for space kit.

“The on-site support to use the facilities is excellent. The Higgs Centre for Innovation, is co-located with STFC’s UK Astronomy Technology Centre (UK ATC) – a state-of-the-art engineering facility building ground-breaking instruments for the world’s biggest and most ambitious telescopes on land and in space. UK ATC’s Zeshan Ali and Mark Cliffe supported us, on-the-ground, helping us to the run the tests.

“Overall, we had a great experience. The Higgs Centre for Innovation, for us, offered a really cool ‘vibe’ centre – which we found to be both slick and reliable. We have now launched 2 deployers and have 6 satellites in orbit.”

Of working with Alba Orbital in the Higgs facilities clean rooms, UK ATC’s Zeshan Ali says “That we have test facilities that mimic the harsh environment of space, in a clean room environment, enables hardware developers to efficiently reduce the risk to the flight hardware during the Assembly, Integration and Testing (AIT) phase of a project/mission. It was great to be able support Alba Orbital to do vibration testing, as part of their flight hardware qualification programme – which can be an anxious time for companies – and to know that the Alba Orbital deployers and small satellites are now doing their jobs… in space.”

Julian Dines, Head of Innovation, The Higgs Centre for Innovation, says “High tech, new space start-up, Alba Orbital, were the first commercial users of the state-of-the-art clean room facilities at the Higgs, when we opened for business late last year. We are thrilled that the facilities at the Higgs contributed to enabling Tom and his team to ‘qualify’ their hardware for flight worthiness – and that they are also the first of our commercial users to now have ‘stuff in space’. The Higgs facilities are ideally placed as a key enabler within the Scottish space sector, helping SMEs to develop space capability.”

Further information

Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC):

The Science and Technology Facilities Council is part of UK Research and Innovation – the UK body which works in partnership with universities, research organisations, businesses, charities, and government to create the best possible environment for research and innovation to flourish. STFC funds and supports research in particle and nuclear physics, astronomy, gravitational research and astrophysics, and space science and also operates a network of five national laboratories as well as supporting UK research at a number of international research facilities including CERN, FERMILAB,

the ESO telescopes in Chile and many more. Visit stfc.ukri.org for more information. @STFC_Matters THE HIGGS


This ground-breaking new facility, created by the Science & Technology Facilities Council (STFC) and in partnership with the University of Edinburgh, applies business incubation best practice to big data, astronomy, particle physics and space technology, enabling start-ups to translate fundamental research into wider commercial impact. Incubated companies also have access to the Specialist Lab facilities and Data Visualisation Suite. The Business Incubation Centre includes a comprehensive support package for successful applicant companies to develop new products and services in areas related to space, big data and high precision engineering. #HiggsInnovation


Based at the Royal Observatory in Edinburgh and operated by the UK’s Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) and part of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), the UK Astronomy Technology Centre (UK ATC) is the national centre for astronomical technology. The UK ATC designs and builds instruments for many of the world’s major telescopes on land and in space. It also project manages UK and international collaborations and its scientists carry out observational and theoretical research into questions such as the origins of planets and galaxies. @ukatc

Last updated: 26 March 2020


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