The cutting edge of tackling climate change
Satellite engineers at Astrium are developing new technologies that will assist in protecting the environment. Their union, Unite, helps Astrium stay at the cutting edge of technology by fighting for better pay and conditions, enabling the company to recruit and train the best people.
Text / Kate Griffin
The blanket is gold-coloured and smooth to the touch. Look closer, and you can see the flimsy layers beneath the shiny surface. It looks as if it's been discarded by one of the Wise Men in a school nativity play, but this material is destined for better things. The "blanket" is a sheet of aluminium coated in Kapton, a plastic film designed to be stable at a wide range of temperatures; it's a substance used in space as the protective coating of satellite modules.
I'm at the UK site of Astrium, one of the most advanced companies in the space industry. From the unprepossessing surroundings of Stevenage in Hertfordshire, Astrium's UK plant designs and builds satellites and vehicles destined for outer space.
The plant has long been at the cutting edge of the aerospace industry. Perhaps Astrium's most famous project was Beagle 2, part of the European Space Agency's first (and ultimately unsuccessful) Mars mission. But the Beagle 2 project is just a fraction of the exciting work carried out at the plant.
Right now, Astrium's engineers are constructing the Gaia spacecraft, an unmanned craft set to launch in 2012. Its mission is to map a billion stars, using the most powerful telescope ever created. Gaia's equipment is so sensitive that if the craft was on the moon, it could measure the thumbnail of a person standing on Earth.
Astrium has also been chosen by the European Space Agency (ESA) as prime contractor for one of the most ambitious space projects ever undertaken: the ongoing construction and assembly of the International Space Station, which includes an orbital laboratory for scientists to carry out cutting-edge experiments in a low-gravity environment.