Airbus: Stevenage's out of this world impact on space missions over seven decades

Solar Orbiter, which was designed and built at Airbus in Stevenage, performed a flyby of Earth on Sa

Solar Orbiter, which was designed and built at Airbus in Stevenage - Credit: European Space Agency

Airbus Space and Defence has called Stevenage home for seven decades, with many of its key players born and bred in the town - but where did it all start? And what's next for the technology giant? 

Airbus in Stevenage has played key roles in high profile space programmes including the Rosetta comet chaser – which successfully placed a lander on Comet 67P in 2014 and Venus Express which spent nine years surveying the planet before ending in 2014.

An aerial shot of Airbus' Stevenage campus on Gunnels Wood Road

An aerial shot of Airbus' Stevenage campus on Gunnels Wood Road - Credit: Airbus

About 25 per cent of the world’s geostationary telecommunications satellites start their life in Stevenage. 

Where it all began

1952 - 1972

Stevenage's Airbus factory originally made aircraft space parts, and has played a leading role in the development and success of Britain’s space industry.

Airbus factory site off Stevenage's Gunnels Wood Road

Airbus factory site off Stevenage's Gunnels Wood Road - Credit: Airbus

Blue Streak rockets produced in the 1950s

Blue Streak rockets produced in the 1950s - Credit: Airbus

From the early days of space exploration with the development and manufacture of the Blue Streak rockets from the 1950s, to the pioneering geostationary satellites produced in the late 1960s. 

Blue Streak rockets produced in the 1950s

Blue Streak rockets produced in the 1950s - Credit: Airbus

Most Read

Highlights from the early days include Comet 1 spares and propeller development in the 1950s. 

Blue Streak rockets produced in the 1950s

Blue Streak rockets produced in the 1950s - Credit: Airbus

1972 - 1992

Stevenage's site produced Spacelab Shuttle Pallets between 1979 and 2008 and worked on the Ariane 1, 2 and 3 rockets between 1973 and 1984 - designed with the ability of sending a pair of satellites into orbit on a single launcher.

The first Ariane 1 was launched in 1979 from the Guiana Space Centre in South America. 

Orbital Test Satellite launched on May 11, 1978. 

1992 - 2012

The turn of the millennium saw more major breakthroughs in the space industry, including work on the first Eurostar E3000 in 2004, as well as the Mars Express spacecraft which is still operating successfully in orbit around Mars 18 years after its launch in 2003.

Assembly of the Airbus Eurostar Neo at the defence and space company's Stevenage hub on Gunnels Wood

Assembly of the Airbus Eurostar Neo at the defence and space company's Stevenage hub on Gunnels Wood Road - Credit: Airbus

Four Skynet 5 satellites were built and launched, which still provide secure Military Satellite Communications to UK MOD and its allies. 

Skynet 5 airbus

Skynet 5 - Credit: Airbus

Airbus secured the contract for the Solar Orbiter science spacecraft in 2012, which will fly closer to the Sun than the orbit of Mercury. 

2012 - 2017 

Following a decade-long journey, Stevenage-built spacecraft, Rosetta successfully placed lander Philae on comet 67P on November 12, 2014. 

Stevenage-built spacecraft, Rosetta and its lander Philae safety touched down on comet 67P on November 12, 2014

Stevenage-built spacecraft, Rosetta and its lander Philae safety touched down on comet 67P on November 12, 2014 - Credit: Airbus

In December 2015, Lisa Pathfinder - also built in the town - launched from Kourou, on a mission to pave the way for detecting gravitational waves in space. 

The LISAPathfinder spacecraft separates from its propulsion module as it arrives at its destination

The LISAPathfinder spacecraft - Credit: Airbus

A few days later, Airbus signed a contract with the European Space Agency for a spacecraft which will explore the icy moons of Jupiter and will be due for launch early next year!

Airbus signed a contract with ESA for spacecraft which will explore the icy moons of Jupiter

Airbus signed a contract with ESA for spacecraft which will explore the icy moons of Jupiter - Credit: Airbus

Prototype of the Mars rover in Airbus' cleanroom in Stevenage

Prototype of the ExoMars rover in Airbus' cleanroom - completed in 2016 - in Stevenage - Credit: Airbus

By May 2016 of that year, a contract was signed with ESA, for the Biomass satellite to produce 3D maps of forests to show how much carbon is stored in the world’s forests.

Ministerial visit/Jo Johnson/Biomass Satellite

Ministerial visit from Jo Johnson following the Biomass Satellite contract win - Credit: Airbus/Max Alexander

2017 - 2021

Laser satellite Aeolus, owned ESA and built in Gunnels Wood Road, was launched from Kourou in French Guiana in August 2018.

The Aeolus satellite build at Airbus in Stevenage, which launched into space in August 2018

The Aeolus satellite build at Airbus in Stevenage, which launched into space in August 2018 - Credit: Max Alexander/Airbus

Aeolus is the first satellite capable of performing global wind-component-profile observation on a daily basis in near real-time.

Airbus' Solar Orbiter built in Stevenage is set to launch to the centre of the Solar System. Picture

Airbus' Solar Orbiter built in Stevenage - Credit: Airbus

The team in Stevenage said also goodbye to its Solar Obiter in 2018, as it was sent for testing ahead of its billion-pound mission to unlock the secrets of our Sun’s magnetic fields. 

Airbus’ Solar Orbiter in the final stages of integration in Stevenage

Airbus’ Solar Orbiter in the final stages of integration in Stevenage - Credit: Airbus

Solar Obiter took off on its mission from Florida on February 10, 2020 and will take the closest pictures of our star, as well as flying over the Sun’s poles.

Robotics systems engineers Matt Lisle and Yvonne Pickering show Prime Minister Boris Johnson (left)

Robotics systems engineers Matt Lisle and Yvonne Pickering show Prime Minister Boris Johnson one of three prototype system testbed Mars rovers - Credit: PA

In 2021, a new £35 million facility was officially opened by Prime Minister Boris Johnson. 

What's next?

2022 and beyond brings many more out of this world projects for Stevenage's Airbus staff. 

The 6.2 ton JUICE - Jupiter Icy moons Explorer mission - spacecraft will set off in 2023 on its near 600 million-kilometre long journey to Jupiter. 

During its four year-long mission, JUICE will collect data to understand the conditions for giant gaseous planet formation and the emergence of deep life habitats.

Bruno, the ExoMars Rover prototype, on the Mars test area at Airbus Defence and Space in Gunnels Woo

Bruno, the ExoMars Rover prototype, on the Mars test area at Airbus Defence and Space in Gunnels Wood Road, Stevenage - Credit: Airbus

In March 2020, the launch of Stevenage-built ExoMars Rover Rosalind Franklin was delayed until September 2022 due to parachute testing issues. 

Managing Director of Airbus Defence and Space UK

Richard Franklin Managing Director of Airbus Defence and Space UK - Credit: Airbus

Richard Franklin, managing director of Airbus Defence and Space UK said: “For Stevenage to be the centre of the UK’s major space activities has taken long term investment and commitment.

"We have 240 local suppliers in the east of England and spend more than £120 million a year with them including nearly £10 million with SMEs.

"We have been in Stevenage for more than 70 years, with our factory originally making aircraft parts, before we set our sights much higher in space.

"And with exciting projects coming up such as the Sample Fetch Rover that will help bring samples back from Mars, and the UK’s future Skynet 6A military communications satellite we intend to be here and growing for many years to come."