NEWS

9 August 2022

The Darwin Autonomous Shuttle on CNN Marketplace Europe

The Darwin Autonomous Shuttle on CNN Marketplace Europe

In the last week of July, the CNN team paid a visit to Harwell Science and Innovation Campus to report on the campus’s work with 5G and satellites. The news segment includes a chat aboard the Darwin Autonomous Shuttle!

In the last week of July, the CNN team paid a visit to Harwell Science and Innovation Campus to report on the campus’s work with 5G and satellites. The news segment includes a chat aboard the Darwin Autonomous Shuttle! You can watch the video here. David Owens talks the host through the Darwin Autonomous Shuttle service, and how, now that self-driving technology exists, real-world examples like the shuttle help to get the public used to sharing the roads with autonomous vehicles. The video also features an interesting interview with Antonio Franchi of the European Space Agency, one of our partners supporting the Darwin Autonomous Shuttle project. Antonio speaks about ubiquitous communications, an important aspect of Darwin’s work. By supplementing 5G networks with satellites, we can achieve far greater communications coverage than we can with 5G alone. Darwin’s technology makes it possible to switch seamlessly between 5G and satellite connections, depending on what networks are available. To learn more about why this matters, take a look at our article ‘Why combine terrestrial and satellite communications?’ Darwin Innovation Group is an Oxfordshire-based company that provides services related to autonomous vehicles and communications. If you’re interested in working with us, take a look at our careers page. If you’d like to know how we can help your organisation make use of autonomous vehicles, contact us. You can also follow us on LinkedIn or Twitter.
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2 August 2022

Darwin at the Farnborough International Airshow

Darwin at the Farnborough International Airshow

We had the pleasure of attending the Farnborough Airshow 2022 this July: the first time the airshow had taken place in four years. The event was held from 18 to 22 July, and Darwin went along with ESA and UKSA to demonstrate some of the things we’ve achieved together.

We had the pleasure of attending the Farnborough Airshow 2022 this July: the first time the airshow had taken place in four years. The event was held from 18 to 22 July, and Darwin went along with ESA and UKSA to demonstrate some of the things we’ve achieved together. Rodrigo Barreto, Darwin’s lead architect, gave the presentation ‘Smart Mobility Everywhere: the case for hybrid satellite and mobile communications’ on Thursday 21 July. Darwin was originally created with the vision of combining satellite and mobile communications, so this is a topic that’s always been close to our heart. With Darwin’s technology, vehicles can switch between satellite and terrestrial networks in an instant, making it possible to remain continuously connected even in motion. The Darwin Autonomous Shuttle also paid a visit to the airshow! Our shuttle operator Irving Galva Tapia was happy to welcome people aboard if they wanted to take a look around. ‘Farnborough was a unique experience,’ Irving said. ‘I had the chance to see part of an amazing air show, and also the chance to meet people from all kinds of innovation sectors with a lot of knowledge.’ We can achieve great things on Earth by looking to the skies, which is part of why events like the Farnborough International Airshow are so valuable. To learn more about how satellites can supplement 5G and why that’s important, take a look at our article ‘Why combine terrestrial and satellite communications?’ Darwin Innovation Group is an Oxfordshire-based company that provides services related to autonomous vehicles and communications. If you’re interested in working with us, take a look at our careers page. If you’d like to know how we can help your organisation make use of autonomous vehicles, contact us. You can also follow us on LinkedIn or Twitter.
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26 July 2022

What is space debris?

What is space debris?

Space is vast and largely empty, but the space around our planet is becoming increasingly cluttered. In today’s post, we’re talking about what space debris is, why it’s a problem and how it can be kept under control.

Space is vast and largely empty, but the space around our planet is becoming increasingly cluttered. In today’s post, we’re talking about what space debris is, why it’s a problem and how it can be kept under control. What does ‘space debris’ mean? Essentially, ‘space debris’ refers to objects in space that can’t be controlled and have no function. It’s commonly used to talk about manmade objects orbiting Earth, although meteoroids could also be considered space debris. A communications satellite isn’t space debris, because it does something useful: it relays information from one place to another. If the satellite’s systems fail, though, and it continues to orbit without performing its function, it becomes space debris. If a satellite is destroyed in orbit, it will break into many pieces of space debris. Some pieces will fall towards Earth and burn up in the atmosphere, but many will remain in orbit, cluttering up the space around our planet. Why is space debris a problem? Although space debris is often small, it travels at very high speeds and can damage or destroy operational satellites if it collides with them, in the same way that, although bullets are small, their high speed makes them extremely dangerous. Space debris is also a self-replicating problem. If space debris destroys an existing satellite, it can cause large quantities of new space debris, as happened in 2009 when a derelict satellite, Kosmos 2251, collided with the operational communications satellite Iridium 33. Both satellites broke up into hundreds of smaller pieces, littering Earth’s orbit. If space debris continues to accumulate, it will become harder to operate satellites around Earth. According to ESA’s infographic ‘The Cost of Avoiding Collisions’, each of ESA’s Earth-orbiting spacecraft needs to be moved approximately twice per year to avoid a potential collision with space debris. As the quantity of space debris increases, the need to move satellites in order to avoid collisions will also increase, burning valuable fuel. A notable recent event that created space debris was the Russian missile test that destroyed the defunct Russian satellite Kosmos 1408 in November 2021. The satellite’s destruction resulted in over a thousand pieces of space debris. Some of these pieces burned away in Earth’s atmosphere, but many remain in orbit, and will continue to orbit for years. Shortly after the missile test, the astronauts above the International Space Station (ISS) were told to shelter in heavily shielded capsules, in case the space station was damaged by the debris. You can read a BBC article about the missile test and the resulting concern for the ISS here. Space debris can also impact on Earth’s largest and oldest satellite. In March, part of a rocket hit the moon, creating a new crater. Whereas debris falling towards Earth will partly or fully burn up in the atmosphere, the moon has no atmosphere to prevent impacts. Of course, there’s usually no one on the moon to be endangered by this. How much space debris is there? ESA’s page ‘Space debris by the numbers’ keeps track of the quantity of debris currently in orbit around Earth. As of July 2022, about 31,000 pieces of space debris are being tracked by space surveillance networks. However, many pieces of space debris are too small to track, and these pieces can still present a danger to satellites. ESA reports some estimates of the quantity of space debris orbiting Earth: Approximately 130 million objects between 1 mm and 1 cm in diameter Approximately 1 million objects between 1 cm and 10 cm in diameter Approximately 36,500 objects greater than 10 cm in diameter What can we do about space debris? Unfortunately, we don’t currently have a feasible way of gathering or deorbiting the space debris that already exists, although there has been speculation and research on the topic. Not far from our labs at Harwell Science and Innovation Campus, you’ll find the UK branch of Astroscale, an international company dedicated to space sustainability and tackling the debris problem. One theoretical technique is the use of a laser that can alter the orbit of space debris and cause it to fall into the atmosphere, rather wonderfully named a ‘laser broom’. At the moment, most space debris mitigation techniques focus on two areas: preventing new space debris from being made, and preventing the existing space debris from causing damage. As mentioned, many larger pieces of space debris are tracked, which means it’s possible to anticipate and avoid collisions with operational satellites. Because space debris can’t be controlled, satellite operators will need to move the operational satellite out of the way to avoid an anticipated collision. This is one of the reasons satellites need fuel; for more about this, take a look at our article ‘How are satellites powered?’ Satellites can also be shielded against smaller pieces of space debris. To protect the space station itself and the astronauts aboard it, most of the ISS is shielded against debris of up to 1 cm in diameter. How can we prevent space debris from being made? Space debris is difficult to clear up, so the best thing to do is to prevent it from being made in the first place. This can be done by disposing of a satellite correctly at the end of its lifespan. If a satellite is allowed to stay in orbit until it stops working, it becomes space debris, as it will continue orbiting while serving no function and cannot be controlled. If the defunct satellite is then hit by debris, it may break into many more pieces of space debris. To avoid this, it’s common to slow low-orbiting satellites down as they approach the end of their useful life. When the satellite slows down, gravity takes over; the satellite will be pulled down to Earth and break up in the atmosphere. It’s harder to get satellites in higher orbit to fall to Earth, so these satellites are sometimes instead pushed into a ‘graveyard orbit’, higher than any functional satellites. However, while these satellites are out of the way and no longer pose a danger to functional satellites, they still ultimately become items of space debris, orbiting the Earth while serving no purpose. Eventually, we may need to clean up this graveyard orbit and make better use of it. In the future, hopefully, we’ll develop ways to gather and recycle space debris. For now, by responsibly disposing of satellites before they stop working, we can help to keep Earth’s orbit clear enough to be a safe environment for useful satellites. For more about satellite disposal, take a look at our article ‘What happens to old satellites?’ Darwin Innovation Group is an Oxfordshire-based company that provides services related to autonomous vehicles and communications. If you’re interested in working with us, take a look at our careers page. If you’d like to know how we can help your organisation make use of autonomous vehicles, contact us. You can also follow us on LinkedIn or Twitter.
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14 July 2022

What is the James Webb Space Telescope?

What is the James Webb Space Telescope?

NASA has released the first images from the James Webb Space Telescope, creating a stir across the planet. We make use of Earth satellites at Darwin, so our involvement with space is closer to home, but we’re still excited about this new glimpse into our universe. Here’s a quick look at the new space telescope.

NASA has released the first images from the James Webb Space Telescope, creating a stir across the planet. We make use of Earth satellites at Darwin, so our involvement with space is closer to home, but we’re still excited about this new glimpse into our universe. Here’s a quick look at the new space telescope. What is a space telescope? Space telescopes are used to observe and photograph space, but that’s not why they’re called space telescopes. To be a space telescope, a telescope needs to be in space. It’s obviously difficult and expensive to establish a telescope in space, but it results in better-quality images of space. Earth’s atmosphere distorts the light that passes through it; this is why stars seem to twinkle when we look up at them from Earth. Because space telescopes are put into orbit above Earth’s atmosphere, they can avoid this distortion and take clearer photographs of what’s out there. What is the James Webb Telescope? As the name suggests, the James Webb Space Telescope is a space telescope. It was developed by multiple space agencies working together; NASA, ESA and CSA all had a role in its creation. The James Webb Space Telescope was named after James Edwin Webb, who was the administrator of NASA between 1961 and 1968. It’s also known as JWST or Webb. Webb was launched on Christmas Day in 2021 as the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, launched in 1990, although the Hubble Space Telescope is expected to continue operating for the next few years. Webb is about half the weight of Hubble in Earth’s gravity, but it’s considerably larger, it’s much more powerful and it has a larger field of view. Webb was also designed with infrared photography in mind, whereas Hubble focuses more on the visible and ultraviolet spectrums. Unlike the Hubble Space Telescope, which orbits the Earth, the James Webb Space Telescope orbits the sun. It’s about a million miles further from the sun than Earth, and it took a month to reach its orbital point, known as the Sun–Earth L2 Lagrange point (or simply L2), after its launch. At L2, Webb is able to orbit in line with the Earth around the sun, meaning that the sun and the Earth are always in the same direction from Webb’s perspective. This is important because it means Webb’s sunshield can constantly face the Earth and sun, blocking their light and heat and preventing interference with Webb’s infrared detectors. Because it’s so far from Earth, Webb was designed with the understanding that it wouldn’t be possible to visit it for repairs, whereas Hubble is in low Earth orbit and has been serviced on several occasions. How do space telescopes see back in time? It’s often mentioned that space telescopes can see the past. How is that possible? Powerful telescopes can detect light from sources a great distance away, but that light takes time to travel across space. Light years are a measure of distance based on how long it takes light to travel that distance; for example, if a star is 20 light years from the telescope, that means its light reaches the telescope 20 years after it first left the star. In other words, what the telescope sees is what the star looked like 20 years ago. If a spaceship flew directly in front of the star, the telescope would only see the spaceship 20 years later. This means that, strictly speaking, you can also see the past with your eyes. Light from the moon takes slightly over a second to reach the Earth, so, when you look up at the moon, you’re seeing it as it was a second ago. Rigel is one of the visible stars in Orion, so we’d notice if it exploded, but not for a while; it’s about 860 light years away, so we wouldn’t see the explosion for centuries. If you were somehow on Rigel looking at Earth, 860 light years away, the Earth you saw would be the Earth of the twelfth century. If you had an excellent telescope, you might be able to see Henry II going about his business. A lot has happened on Earth since then, of course, but you would only be able to see the light that’s had the time to reach you. For an example using a different sense, think about lightning. Thunder and lightning happen in the same instant; thunder is the sound of lightning. But, because light travels faster than sound, you’ll see the lightning from a nearby storm before you hear the thunder. When the thunder reaches you, you’re hearing a sound that occurred in the past; you know, from the fact you’ve already seen the flash of the lightning, that it’s not happening right now. Essentially, the further away something is, the further in the past our perception of it is. Because a powerful telescope like Webb can see things that are hugely far away, it can also see things a long way in the past. Unfortunately, it’s not possible to control this; if a planet is a thousand light years away, Webb can see what it was like a thousand years ago, but it can’t see what it was like ten thousand years ago or what it’s like right now. Even if Webb’s ability to see the past is limited in some ways, it’s still remarkable, and it may be able to give us more insight into the origins of the universe. We’re looking forward to seeing what it discovers. Cover image: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI Darwin Innovation Group is an Oxfordshire-based company that provides services related to autonomous vehicles and communications. If you’re interested in working with us, take a look at our careers page. If you’d like to know how we can help your organisation make use of autonomous vehicles, contact us. You can also follow us on LinkedIn or Twitter.
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5 July 2022

Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and the University of Oxford visit Darwin

Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and the University of Oxford visit Darwin

On 17 June, we welcomed visitors from Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI) and the University of Oxford!

Dr Sunao Aoki, former senior executive vice president and current special advisor at MHI, and Professor Budimir Rosic, associate professor of engineering science at St Anne’s College, paid a visit to Harwell Science and Innovation Campus, where Darwin’s UK office is based.

On 17 June, we welcomed visitors from Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI) and the University of Oxford! Dr Sunao Aoki, former senior executive vice president and current special advisor at MHI, and Professor Budimir Rosic, associate professor of engineering science at St Anne’s College, paid a visit to Harwell Science and Innovation Campus, where Darwin’s UK office is based. At Harwell HQ, Monika Zemla presented the campus’s vision for the future in her role as associate director of Harwell Campus. We then visited the European Space Agency (ESA), where Roberta Mugellesi Dow, ESA’s integrated applications manager, spoke about exciting projects to come and ESA’s work in collaboration with the Japanese Space Agency. At the Darwin SatCom Lab, the Darwin team demonstrated some of the things we’ve achieved in our work with communications technology and autonomous vehicles. Our guests also had the opportunity to take a ride in the Darwin Autonomous Shuttle, one of the first self-driving passenger services in the UK. It was a pleasure to speak to Dr Aoki and Professor Rosic, and we hope they enjoyed the day! Darwin Innovation Group is an Oxfordshire-based company that provides services related to autonomous vehicles and communications. If you’re interested in working with us, take a look at our careers page. If you’d like to know how we can help your organisation make use of autonomous vehicles, contact us. You can also follow us on LinkedIn or Twitter.
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