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The quest to make Cornwall a global spaceport

The quest to make Cornwall a global spaceport

January 10
09:37 2019

At Cornwall’s most southern tip lies a remote location populated by huge satellite dishes that once connected Britain to the rest of the world. Today it feels more like an abandoned cold war site or a Tom Baker-era Doctor Who set.

A long-closed visitor centre sits in ruins. The historic control tower has been hollowed out as labourers pick around the debris. Giant rooms, once filled with computers that would process billions of phone calls, remain eerily empty. Yet for astronomers and space enthusiasts of a certain age, the name Goonhilly Downs still resonates.

This is where in 1962 “Arthur”, once the largest satellite dish in the world, was built for the Telstar launches that signalled the dawning of the space age. Named after King Arthur, the dish was later used for the first transatlantic television broadcast in 1967, when The Beatles sang “All You Need Is Love”. It was also critical to beaming images of the 1969 moon landing to millions of homes.

By the early 1970s, Goonhilly was the world’s largest earth station (the terrestrial link for transmitting and receiving communications from satellites). Eventually, all the UK’s international calls were spliced up on the Lizard peninsula and sent via satellite to their destinations.

Arthur, Goonhilly’s first satellite dish © Marco Kesseler

The site was even mentioned in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, when its dishes failed to detect the Vogon invasion that ultimately led to the end of the world. Yet the end of the 20th century saw the advent of new technologies and, as fibre-optic communications boomed, the era of huge geostationary satellites started to fade.

In 2006, the site’s owners BT revealed that it planned to knock down all the dishes, with the exception of the listed Arthur, and install wind turbines instead. It looked like the future had finally overtaken Goonhilly. Instead, a group of engineers, veterans and academics hatched a “mad notion” to repurpose the old dishes for a new age of deep-space communications.

Led by Ian Jones, an entrepreneurial engineer who remembers watching the moon landings as a child, they are convinced the satellite industry is set for a revival driven by space exploration and travel. But can Goonhilly really become a big player in this new era? Jones believes he has seen the future: “The world’s economy runs over the internet and Cornwall could become its focal point.”

It would be easy to see Goonhilly’s attempts to put itself back on the map as little more than a pipe dream. Around the turn of the century, when it became clear that fibre was taking over the market for international calls and data transmission, traders in the City of London calling colleagues in New York would listen for signs of echo on the line. Having established they were on a satellite connection, they would promptly hang up and dial again, until they got on to the faster fibre. They would then leave the line open all day.

There are more recent signs that the age of the satellite is coming to an end. Sky, the pay-TV company responsible for mini-dishes being attached to the side of millions of British houses, is moving towards fibre and “over-the-top” app delivery methods to get its shows into people’s homes.

Certainly, visitors expecting to see dramatic rocket launches or dozens of scientists huddled around banks of computer screens at Goonhilly will be disappointed. The first view of Cornwall’s space industry is three alpacas grazing in front of the enormous satellite dishes. Yet the serene atmosphere masks the remarkable revival that has taken place in recent years.

All the antennas have been restarted and retooled for a number of functions. Not only are they monitoring deep space — possibly for Vogons — but they are steering satellites that provide broadband across the Middle East and Africa.

Ian Jones, founder of GES: ‘If the apocalypse happens, space becomes a really important factor in assessing and managing the planet’ © Marco Kesseler

In February, Goonhilly Earth Station (GES), the company Jones formed to take over the site from BT, was handed a long-term contract from the European Space Agency for a commercial deep-space antenna. This has effectively secured its future.

Plans are afoot to transform Cornwall, once a maritime stronghold, into a booming spaceport used to propel satellites into the atmosphere. The £8.4m funding, partly supported by UK government money, will be used to upgrade a dish originally built in 1985 with a new antenna reaching more than two million kilometres into space; the first commercially available communications service to support future space missions.

For Jones, a tall 55-year-old who talks with a boffin’s excitement, there will be lots more opportunity to do business as the space economy is opened up. “This is just the start of the story,” he says.

Goonhilly’s revival began with a chance meeting. At its peak, about 300 people worked there, including engineer Des Prouse. When he first visited Goonhilly in 1971, he was blown away by the sight of the 1,100-tonne Arthur and never left.

Prouse, now 70, lights up when he talks about its heyday. There was a cricket ground, tennis courts, manicured gardens and a football pitch for the high-tech workers, many of whom had relocated from other parts of the UK. Prouse even played guitar in Goonhilly’s house band. “Everything was rosy. We all felt we had jobs for life,” he says in a soft-spoken West Country voice.

A remote control device for changing an antenna’s direction © Marco Kesseler

Years later, Prouse was devastated by the prospect of Goonhilly being scrapped. But when he happened to meet Jones at a conference, Prouse showed him a printout of an article he had read about a Japanese earth station that had been converted into a deep-space communications telescope and asked if he knew anyone who would know whether an earth station such as Goonhilly could be similarly transformed.

Jones consulted his brother, a professor of experimental cosmology at Oxford University, who was sceptical about whether anyone would pay to convert Goonhilly into a deep-space communications station, but talked to an astrophysicist colleague who wrote to urge BT not to tear down the dishes. With the wheels in motion, Goonhilly became a labour of love for Jones.

First he had to persuade BT — which initially had no intention of selling the site — not to bulldoze Goonhilly, while he set about coming up with a business model that would generate enough cash to keep it going. Initial promises of significant Whitehall backing faded, even though, in 2013, a government report forecast that the UK could quadruple its revenue from the global space industry to £40bn by 2030 (“It’s the British way,” says a sanguine Jones).

Part of Goonhilly being upgraded for deep-space communications © Marco Kesseler

Instead, he focused on picking up “bread-and-butter” contracts from large satellite companies to control and monitor their fleets — a space version of a data centre. Smaller satellite companies would also use Goonhilly for more academic projects.

Jones was no newcomer to the satellite business. In the late 1980s, he worked on the modem for the now rather old-fashioned in-flight Sky Phones. In 2006, his company Orbit Research won a contract to build an earth station in a car park in Bradford, a tiny version of the famous Goonhilly.

Now he is convinced we are at the dawn of a new space era, where tracking satellites can be used to monitor population growth, refugee movement, climate change and even the spread of contagions. “If the apocalypse happens, space becomes a really important factor in assessing and managing the planet. We have to have the infrastructure ready,” he says.

As Jones sees it, the industry is transforming again, from one dominated by enormous geostationary satellites used for broadcasting and GPS to one featuring smaller modules that can be used for a variety of functions including earth monitoring.

A new generation of companies, such as LeoSat and SoftBank-backed OneWeb, have already emerged to target the established geostationary companies such as Britain’s Inmarsat, the marine safety satellite group that was one of Goonhilly’s biggest customers in the 1990s. One of GES’s current customers, Planet Labs, now has the largest fleet in the sector after launching dozens of smaller “dove” satellites.

Merlin, Goonhilly’s largest satellite dish, was built in 1985 © Marco Kesseler

This shift has changed the equation for launching satellites. Traditional satellites are the size of a double-decker bus and have to be propelled into orbit vertically. That means launch sites have to be based near the equator.

By contrast, the new generation of low-earth-orbiting satellites can be launched horizontally from an aircraft wing. For Jones, that opens up the prospect of Cornwall becoming a spaceport, with satellites launching from a runway in Newquay, the surfer town on the county’s north coast.

A pair of antennas at Goonhilly Downs © Marco Kesseler

Ken Gabriel is a former director of the US defence department’s technology arm Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa). He believes the nano-satellite revolution is set to accelerate. “The ability of nano-satellites to make up large constellations is a major shift in the space industry, for both existing and future technologies,” says Gabriel, who now runs Draper, a satellite technology non-profit that works with the US space agency Nasa.

From a cost perspective, such satellites make previously abandoned old earth stations “eminently more accessible”, and open up the market to start-ups and nontraditional players. “The ability of small satellites to be launched over and over again into space, at a price point where initial failure doesn’t mean cancellation of the entire project, means space stations no longer need to serve their purpose and die,” says Gabriel.

One of Britain’s richest men has already bought into the reinvention of Goonhilly. Peter Hargreaves, the billionaire behind Bristol-based online retail broker Hargreaves Lansdown, invested £24m for a stake in GES in May through his family trust.

Like Jones, Hargreaves, 72, has fond memories of Goonhilly as it was. He remembers visiting the Lizard peninsula when his wife was pregnant with their first child and seeing Arthur emerge through the mist. “I never thought I would own it one day,” he says.

Control panels at Goonhilly © Marco Kesseler

Yet he stresses that his investment was not driven by nostalgia. “I may be a billionaire,” he says, “but I don’t just invest £24m at the drop of a hat.” Hargreaves says Goonhilly was less of a pie-in-the-sky opportunity and more about communications that, in future, will support everything from asteroid mining to commercial space travel.

“We have only scratched the surface of what we can do with communications,” he says. “My father wouldn’t have believed that you could watch a [cricket] Test match played in Melbourne in his front room in glorious Technicolor,” he said. “I had a Sky Phone on my plane. It was a bit clunky but it reached everywhere in the world. Within 20 years, mobile phones will operate over satellites. That’s an enormous change.”

Hargreaves believes satellites and telecoms companies will once more become integrated systems and Goonhilly could play a significant role in this. Vodafone has already struck a deal with Inmarsat to collaborate on roaming and the satellite company is also working with Deutsche Telekom on in-flight connectivity.

Yet not everyone is convinced. Wilton Fry, an analyst at stockbroker RBC, says the vision of a dominant satellite-based telecoms network is feasible but remains a pipe dream. The radiation levels needed for a smartphone to reach satellites would, he says, be a significant issue “unless you want to glow in the dark like the Ready Brek kids”.

Nevertheless, Hargreaves has instructed Jones and his team to “be bold”. It is clear he sees an opportunity to transform the site into a global leader. “Whatever you do with satellites, you have to be able to communicate with them. Otherwise they are no damn use at all,” he says of the opportunity for Goonhilly to turn a significant profit in the future.

Alpacas in a field next to Merlin © Marco Kesseler

The team behind the project is hunting for expansion opportunities in the US and Australia, essential if it wants to fulfil its goal of creating a deep-space network. The prospect of a global series of commercial earth stations, with Cornwall at its centre, is about to be tested.

Cornwall has played a vital role in the history of communications, not just in Britain but across the world. The first transatlantic sub-sea cables were laid from the beach at Porthcurno in the 1800s as the telegraph industry grew.

By the 1920s, the small valley was the world’s largest cable station, connecting the UK to India, the US and Australia. Porthcurno became the beating heart of the imperial telecoms company Cable & Wireless, which by 1939 had a global network that stretched for 355,000 miles.

Circuitry notes in one of the antennas © Marco Kesseler

The mobile industry also traces its roots to Cornwall. It was in 1901 on the Lizard that Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi, the godfather of modern communications, conducted successful trials of wireless data transmission when he sent signals between two wooden huts.

The rise of satellites in the postwar period maintained that legacy. The Lizard plateau was the ideal spot for an earth station at Goonhilly, as it was “quiet” in terms of radio-signal interference. Cornwall’s natural bedrock of granite and serpentine was also perfect for installing huge satellite dishes given their enormous weight.

Even today, the cables that land on Cornwall’s shores carry more than 90 per cent of transatlantic data traffic. Jones plans to build on this long heritage by installing a very high-specification data centre at Goonhilly that could link the cables. “The hotline between the president and the prime minister used to come through Cornwall. Now telecoms is not a defined route but the cloud has to exist somewhere,” he says.

The Merlin dish © Marco Kesseler

Its lineage is unquestionable but does Cornwall really have what it takes to become a global spaceport? According to Ken Gabriel, “we can now repeatedly get new information and materials to [old] stations to extend their lifetime.” Yet Fry, the analyst, claims that despite the miniaturisation of satellite equipment, large earth stations such as Goonhilly are still entrenched in the geostationary age.

It would, he argues, be difficult for it to act as the listening and control station for thousands of smaller satellites due to their lower orbit, which means they will not be within reach of the Cornish coast at all times. Jones says he plans to modify some dishes to allow for tracking of satellites directly overhead.

The bet is that Goonhilly, so long a symbol of the old age of satellites, can be reborn in a new era. With Hargreaves, who describes space as “a billionaire’s game”, on board, GES finally has the kind of money that could help it to rival the efforts of companies such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX.

This year will also see the launch of a commercial moon mission, Lunar Pathfinder. The vehicle will be built in Guildford, Surrey, and controlled from Goonhilly and will carry nano-satellites that will be released into lunar orbit and on to the surface of the moon.

Inventor Guglielmo Marconi (left) sending the first wireless signals across the Atlantic to Cornwall in 1901 © Time Life Pictures/Pix Inc./The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
Goonhilly satellite earth station in November 1964 © Bert Hardy Advertising Archive/Getty Images

Jones, who had quadrupled his workforce to 100 by the end of 2018, believes the site’s resurgence could be “really good for the Cornish economy”, attracting highly technical and well-paid jobs to one of Europe’s most economically deprived regions. As part of his overhaul, he plans to build an “innovation centre” for satellite start-up companies. “I’ll know we’ve been successful at Goonhilly when the first employee resigns and starts a new business,” he quips.

Prouse, who is now a Goonhilly veteran of almost 50 years, has never been so confident about its future. “Cornwall has pulled its finger out and realised its future is in high-tech, not in tourism,” he says. “BT built [Goonhilly] into the largest satellite earth station in the world but in the next 50 years I believe it will get critical acclaim as a science park.” He calls the unlikely turnround “a tale of two half-centuries”.

Nic Fildes is the FT’s telecoms correspondent

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