19-10-201219-10-2012 - Interview with Ian Jones, CEO of Goonhilly Earth Station

"I'm sure that we can learn a lot from each other by collaborating closely"

1.    What are the plans for you and your consortium for the Goonhilly Earth Station?

We are really still at the beginning of an exciting new enterprise at Goonhilly. The former international satellite gateway was due to be dismantled, so our first major objective was to secure the site, thereby rescuing the antennas, then to develop a sustainable business there.
This is a completely new, entrepreneurial approach to building a highly capable space science centre, working with excellent partners and hopefully having a lot of fun on the way.

We realised right from the outset that the large antennas, which are no longer required for commercial satellite communications, are ideal for radio astronomy and deep space communications. The challenge was to see if we could make the books balance, and this requires revenue! We identified a number of complementary revenue streams, each of which contributes to the overhead recovery and each of which is inspired by the presence of the large antennas:

First and foremost, of course, is the use of the antennas themselves. We have established a fantastic working relationship with four UK-based universities, Oxford, Manchester, Leeds and Hertfordshire and the number of Universities we are working with is growing. They have formed the “Consortium of Universities for Goonhilly Astronomy” (CUGA) and are beginning to develop new receivers to upgrade the capabilities of at least two of the 30m antennas. We are planning to carry out further upgrades to make the antennas as flexible as possible.

However, we haven't forgotten our roots in satellite communications, and we have been successful in winning commercial contracts for ground station operations, including prestigious contracts with SES for providing Tracking and Telecommand services for their satellites.

In addition to the antennas we inherit a secure site with some interesting legacy buildings, excellent power supply and fibre-optic infrastructure and a visitor centre. We intend to utilise as much as we can of the site to develop business. Whilst in its infancy we're especially interested in creating a state-of-the-art data centre which can capitalise on the site security and amazing fibre-optic connectivity we have, not only back into London, but internationally via sub-sea cable routes that are present at Goonhilly.

With the wealth of technical expertise in the local area, a great, practical location and world-class University partners we intend to open a training centre, running short courses for a range of audiences including corporate leadership training, technical training for space-industry professionals, university undergraduate and postgraduate teaching and research as well as courses in STEM subjects for teachers and public outreach sessions for children and adults.

2.     In what way can the Goonhilly Earth Station contribute to the development of the SKA?

Rescuing of a former satellite communication station and its conversion, at least in part into a Radio Astronomy centre, is a model which is recognised by our friends in Africa who are developing similar plans.

In order to create sustainable activities, there are many challenges and obstacles in the way, and I'm sure that we can learn a lot from each other by collaborating closely. Not least of these are the technical challenges of maintaining and converting legacy equipment and we have been working closely with our University partners to advance solutions to such challenges.

Our Goonhilly-6 antenna is almost identical to the 32m Ghana antenna, and our Goonhilly-3 antenna is identical to the Kenya Rift Valley antenna, for example. In creating these pre-cursor VLBI networks there is much to learn which will inform the SKA design.

We are hopeful that we will be able to link Goonhilly into the Manchester eMERLIN VLBI. This will double the existing longest baseline in the array to some 400km – a similar distance to the planed separation of nodes in the SKA, providing a highly useful testing ground, and a centre for collaboration between partners.

We are keen that our training centre should be used for exchange programmes between European and African scientists, and that especially in conjunction with our planned manufacturing activities at Goonhilly we can develop knowledge transfer collaborations.

Being a European entrepreneurial SME with such excellent radio astronomy credentials and facilities we are very keen to make partnerships and collaborations in EU funded activities that contribute to the development of the SKA.

3.    What do you expect from the upgrading of the Goonhilly Visitor Centre?

We know that the public are extremely interested in Space, and that they see very little distinction between the different disciplines of Astronomy, Radio Astronomy, Rocket Science, Planetary Exploration.... or indeed many aspects of science and engineering in general.

The old Goonhilly Visitor Centre typically had an annual footfall of close to 100,000 people before it closed and this was limited on busy days by the size of the facility. People were literally turned away on the busiest days of the year.

In developing a new visitor centre we have some very exciting plans which will significantly increase the Visitor centre content and expand the car parking space to enable more visitors. By our developing a completely new space theme we aim to explain and demonstrate the wide range of science and engineering involved in the sector and we will showcase, in particular, the work of the CUGA universities and the SKA.

As part of our redevelopment of the visitor centre, we're planning to build a new planetarium, a robotic lab (with planetary surface simulator), a mission operations centre and a wide range of interactive exhibits which we hope will inspire our audience.

Qualified scientists and teachers will develop education outreach materials and we are very keen to develop a student placement programme whereby physics students can contribute to outreach activities in the Visitor Centre, assist and experience operational activities at Goonhilly and carry out R&D activities.

As well as our science-based activities, we are keen that Goonhilly is seen as a cultural centre and we have been creating links to local education establishments, artists and even a professional symphony orchestra!

4.    Do you cooperate already with African researchers or institutions? If yes, in what way does your project benefit from this cooperation?

Our consortium partners at the CUGA universities are very closely associated with African researchers through a number of different programmes including MEERKAT, the African Array and directly on SKA.

Also we have benefited from strong support from the South African Embassy in London and from various researchers in connection with the establishment of our plans. We are very keen to extend these collaborations.

Our satellite communication business, operating from Rugby, UK has an active footprint over Africa via our iDirect satellite internet platform. This provides high capacity broadband services directly from the UK into Africa. We are very keen to utilise this capability for education outreach in connection with SKA and STEM activities, or even for wider applications in health or cultural exchange.

5.    Are the initiatives and the support of AERAP helpful for your work? What other kind of support would you need to facilitate cooperation with African partners?

The establishment of AERAP and the meetings so far in Brussels have been extremely useful. Brussels is a surprisingly easy location for meetings and it has been very worthwhile attending and meeting key stake-holders and potential project collaborators.

The nature of European funding requires consortia to be established from different nations and this has proved to be an excellent and informative forum in which to meet and discuss the various initiatives and funding instruments that might be available.

We would be keen, in future sessions to meet with Commissioners and MEPs, and of course with African collaborators.

AERAP is an excellent catalyst for ideas. A workshop session would be an excellent way of taking those ideas to the next developmental stage.

6.    What are your plans for the future?

We are very keen to grow Goonhilly alongside the work of the SKA and the various partners. We are immensely excited about the possibility of being involved in and contributing to this inspirational project, and in helping to spread the positive message that this pure science activity will help improve peoples' lives here on our own planet.

Further information: www.goonhilly.org
Contact: info@goonhilly.org

Biography of Ian Jones Bsc (Hons) CEng MIET

Ian Jones is the CEO of Goonhilly Earth Station Ltd and Orbit Research Ltd.
After graduating from Leeds University in 1985 with an Hons degree in Electrical Engineering, he has held a number of senior positions at British Telecom Research Labs, Communication Systems Research Ltd and Ferranti International. Ian has always been at the forefront of leading technology developments in digital satellite communication systems.
In 1994, Ian founded a new company, Orbit Research Ltd, a satellite communications consultancy and design company. Orbit supplied equipment, software and consultancy to a wide range of international telecom operators. In 2002 Orbit became the first distributor of the new Eutelsat D-Star satellite internet service, and this led to the company being awarded a major contract to build and operate a UK satellite ground station for carrying National Health Service medical imaging data via satellite. This business allowed Orbit Research to invest in a new iDirect satellite internet platform, and to fund the development of the new business at Goonhilly.
Ian is a strong supporter of STEM initiatives both at the grass-roots level and also at a strategic national/international level. He designed the award-winning STAR Centre at Keighley College, and was instrumental in establishing the network of ESERO (European Space Agency Education Resource Offices) in the UK. He has contributed to the UK National Space Strategy in relation to Space Education.
When BT announced its plans to close Goonhilly Earth Station in 2008, Ian campaigned and developed a consortium to rescue the site. This led to the formation of a new company, GES Ltd, which signed an acquisition deal with BT in January 2011.

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