Space

Inside HERMES: The Ground Station Communicating With Space

The new relocatable ground station gives the UK the chance to move into the next level of space capability.

As the world realises the potential that lies beyond Earth, defence planners are shifting their focus to outer space. 

The Ministry of Defence is keen to make sure the UK has a presence and part of that effort is HERMES.

The new relocatable ground station at the Defence Science and Technology Laboratories (DSTL) takes the UK to the next level of space capability.

Forces News was given exclusive access to HERMES.

"If some frontline command person wanted to know the area that they're going into, we can provide them with imagery information and more on what's in front of them," Dr Junayd Miah, principal space scientist at DSTL, told Forces News.

To make this possible, the ground sta​tion ​communicates with satellites passing overhead.

Carbonite-2 is an Earth observation satellite which passes over the HERMES Ground Station three times a day.

As it comes over the horizon, the ground station's antenna locks onto it and the satellite transmits the pictures it has recorded in space.

Animation created in post-production shows how Carbonite-2 satellite hovers over earth 171120 CREDIT BFBS.jpg
Satellite Carbonite-2 passes over HERMES three times a day.

Satellite images fed back to HERMES show the kind of detail one might get from a battlefield during conflict.

Air Vice Marshal Harv Smyth, the MOD’s first Director Space, said: "It pretty much underpins all of our high-end capabilities, like F-35, and all that combat edge that gives us the operational advantage we enjoy over potential adversaries, all of which is enabled through space."

HERMES represents the Ministry of Defence's most significant investment in Space infrastructure in the last two decades.

The team at DSTL built it with support and training from UK company Surrey Satellite Technology.

Phil Brownnett, managing director at Surrey Satellite Technology, said: "We build and manufacture small satellites and it's that heritage and operational use of satellites that we are able to bring to DSTL, so that DSTL has that technical authority in the UK, rather than sort of learning from scratch themselves."

The United Kingdom ​space budget will be finalised in the ongoing spending review, but whatever the final figure, it is unlikely to come close to the $40bn allocated by the United States for space.

However, Britain does have some valuable niche capabilities in the domain declared fully operational by NATO​ in the last year, and recently described as a "warfighting domain" by the US.

HERMES ground station at DSTL in operation 121120 CREDIT BFBS
HERMES is the MOD's most significant investment in space in the last two decades.

As nations around the world grapple with dangers from kinetic and cyber-related attacks in space, Britain's satellites and infrastructure need resilience against enemy activity.

Dr Mike O'Callaghan, space programme manager at DSTL, said: "If we're going to be increasing the number of assets we have in Space, we need to make sure we can look after those in exactly the same way we would look after tanks going around the battlefield or ships at sea."

In July, the UK accused Russia of launching a "projectile with the characteristics of a weapon" during a satellite test.

AVM Smith said at the time that the launch threatened "the peaceful use of space".

"We're seeing other state actors commit more and more nefarious activity in space," AVM Smyth he told Forces News recently.

The MOD's Director Space explained that there is "a multitude of ways to threaten Space-based assets", but a lot of that threat can come from "earth-based equipment".

"Having a more responsible approach to our behaviours either in or to space is really very key," he said.