Space programme brings jobs boost as Thales wins rocket contract

First Minister Arlene Foster speaks at the launch ceremony at Thales accompanied on the platform by Major Tim Peake, Thales general manager Philip McBride and Economy Minister Simon Hamilton

First Minister Arlene Foster speaks at the launch ceremony at Thales accompanied on the platform by Major Tim Peake, Thales general manager Philip McBride and Economy Minister Simon Hamilton

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A specialist £6 million production unit that will manufacture state-of-the art electric thrusters to power satellites into orbit will bring jobs and kudos to the province a ceremony in east Belfast has heard.

Officially opened by astronaut Major Tim Peake, the new rocket propulsion facility at Thales Air Defence is a first for the United Kingdom and brings the promise of jobs over the next two years.

No stranger to significant launches, Major Peake was guest of honour at the ceremony to announce the new division at the firm once known as Shorts Missiles Systems.

The new dedicated propulsion facility will manufacture state of the art electric propulsion systems for satellites.

Electric propulsion is when electrical energy collected from the Sun is converted into thrust by the acceleration of inert Xenon gas ions from an electric thruster, allowing the carriage of larger payloads for longer periods.

That drives down the cost of operating the platform in space and requires one fifth of the propellant to deliver the same mission compared to chemical- based engines.

As such the facility represents a major milestone in the development of space design and manufacturing capability for Thales in the UK since the establishment in 2014 of Thales Alenia Space in the UK.

That joint venture investment has grown the business from 10 employees at its foundation to 150 today, and will more than double to 350 across the business in the next two years.

“The establishment of this industrial aerospace production facility for space manufacturing is an important investment in the development of Northern Ireland’s space cluster and demonstrates the Group’s confidence in the world-class engineering capabilities of its workforce in Northern Ireland,” said First Minister Arlene Foster.

“The space sector is an important emerging market with exciting commercial opportunities.

“We must ensure local businesses maximise their capabilities and expertise to position Northern Ireland as a globally recognised region for space sector innovation and expertise.”

Thales general manager in Belfast Philip McBride said: “As a centre of excellence for precision design and manufacturing we are able to utilise our skills developed in the defence sector in this new innovative space sector.

“We look forward to working in partnership with Thales Alenia Space and the UK and European Space Agency’s to grow the Space sector in Northern Ireland and create sustainable employment.”

Invest Northern Ireland has offered Thales a £500,000 R&D grant to research technologies to establish more efficient ways of producing parts for the Spacebus Neo satellite, the first of its kind fitted with full electric propulsion.