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Astronaut Tim Peake in Belfast for launch of £6m space thruster project

By John Mulgrew

Published 18/10/2016

Cosmic guy: astronaut Tim Peake will be landing in Belfast to launch a new space thruster facility at tech company Thales
Cosmic guy: astronaut Tim Peake will be landing in Belfast to launch a new space thruster facility at tech company Thales

Astronaut Tim Peake will unveil a new £6m investment today which will see Belfast making space thrusters for the first time.

Mr Peake will touch down at Thales in Belfast to launch the creation of a top-end, high-tech facility helping to put satellites into space.

It is understood the new space thruster site will see a dozen staff working on the electric engines. But Thales hopes to increase that number to 20 this year.

And it is some of the most complex and precise work the company is involved in, producing engines which have to be made to a degree of accuracy 90 times thinner than a human hair.

French firm Thales has grown its presence in Northern Ireland to around 500 staff and boosted sales by 20%.

It has also received financial backing from Invest NI to help with research and development.

Belfast fought off stiff competition from a number of other potential sites to win the deal to produce the high-tech electric engines used in space travel.

After landing back on Earth, following six months in space, Mr Peake said he felt like he was having the "world's worst hangover" as his body adjusted to life back home.

He landed back on the planet in June, following his time on the International Space Station.

Victor Chavez, chief executive of Thales UK, said: "Britain is an attractive place for us to invest in our space business, there is a lot of encouragement from the government to invest in the industry."

The engines use electric power which is taken from solar panels to accelerate fuel gas to up to 100 times the speed of sound.

Mr Chavez told the Belfast Telegraph: "These are not experimental designs - they are already in use - and are likely to bring radical change to satellites as they enter wider use.

"Using less fuel means satellites can have much longer service lives: about half of the mass of most geostationary satellites is fuel so the advantages are clear."

Economist John Simpson said it was an "interesting" move from weapons manufacturing to the "high-flying space sector".

"It has been a very useful addition to the range of products on offer in Northern Ireland," he said. "It's a spin-out which was originally part of Shorts, but has been a reasonably profitable contribution to the Thales organisation.

"It has had a good reputation from the defence industry users, and it's interesting they are now going into the high-flying space sector."

Mr Simpson said it would be another welcome addition to the firm's Northern Ireland business.

"I would be very complimentary about the role they have had in the past," he added.

"I think it's an important thing that they have that contract. I hope they say something about the graduates that they employ. They are a good organisation with tech expertise, and it's reassuring to see it progressing."

This is not Mr Peake's first time in Northern Ireland.

He graduated in 1992 aged 20 from the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst as an officer in the Army Air Corps.

He was on attachment with the Royal Green Jackets as a platoon commander in Northern Ireland.

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