Lead Research Organisation: University of Birmingham
Department Name: School of Physics and Astronomy


New developments in quantum technology have resulted in the ability to cool atoms close to absolute zero using lasers and magnetic fields. Laboratory experiments have shown that these "cold atoms" can be used as ultra-sensitive sensors for measuring gravity. Using these sensors in space will enable the mapping of tiny changes in the strength of gravity across the surface of the Earth. This project will investigate the potential applications and markets that these sensors will enable from space. These include the prospect of more accurate monitoring of changes in polar ice mass, ocean currents and sea level thereby enhancing the capability of global climate models. Higher resolution data would lead to the ability to monitor smaller water sources and discover new underground natural resources which are currently not detectable. Similar technology could also be used for deep space navigation and for providing higher precision timing sources in space. The project will also study the technical feasibility of producing a space based system and will propose a roadmap showing the steps to achieving a commercial space sensor.

Planned Impact

Cold atom gravity sensors will deliver major performance improvements compared to existing devices. However, the first sensors are expected to be costly so applications which are prepared to pay a premium are required. As a result, one of the most strategically significant markets is space.

Missions such as ESA's M-class missions are science and technology led with decisions based on managing risk rather than price sensitivity. The right sensor technology is typically available from few suppliers and competition is low. Groups with the most space heritage will be at a significant advantage. We aim to have that advantage. Candidate missions for QT payloads under discussion at ESA are STE-QUEST, GOAT, SOC, SAGE and NGGM and are typically 500m-1bn Euros each. At the instrument level we estimate £20-£50m per mission (based on similarly complex Teledyne e2v projects which are in this 'project value range'). With one ESA mission every 5 years and one from other space agencies this could represent £8m-£20m p.a. by averaging spend across the years with an additional £5-10m p.a. in spin sales. Whilst the business opportunity for the complete sensor is fairly long term, the market for spin off subsystems is nearer term. The UK National QT roadmap states that "provision of laboratory equipment/research process equipment to more than 1400 QT research groups around the world could represent a market opportunity of £10m-£100m a year within 5 years".

Additionally, new high quality gravity data is likely to facilitate new downstream services and applications; this represents a business opportunity that the UK is well placed to exploit.
The economic benefits arising from this project are an increase in UK turnover of around £13m - £30m in 5-10 years based on new component / instrument sales as detailed above. Much of this income would flow down through the UK supply chain which is expected to include many of the subsystem and component providers who we are already working with as partners on other collaborative projects. There is a good probability that a Space Prime with a significant UK footprint could win the prime contract of one or more of the missions built to deliver cold atom capabilities. So one could claim a % of the 500m-1bn Euros of the whole mission costs as additional UK activity.
Socially, £30m of additional turnover equates to c.200 new jobs in the UK, including engineers, technical, sales and admin staff. This will enable the UK to maintain an important technology lead and train a new generation of engineers and physicists with sought-after high-level skills. Engagement with industry will enable those engineers to find jobs relevant to their training, while engagement with UK policy makers will ensure government priorities remain focussed on funding initiatives in areas of UK-centric expertise.

In addition to the export opportunities for UK space hardware suppliers, access to this new technology will stimulate the UK services and applications industry and commercial uses of the data which are major UK strengths in the downstream space sector.

This technology has the potential to have a large societal impact as cold atom sensors in space are expected to lead to a significant improvement in Earth observation including enhanced prediction of earthquakes, droughts and floods and higher resolution monitoring of sea level rise. All of these aspects will lead to increased quality of life for people living in at risk areas.
Applications also include the provision of ultra-stable time sources which could enable fast and secure financial transactions and mobile data connection, tests of the most fundamental physical theories, secure communication systems and the possibility of improved navigation systems.


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Devani D (2020) Gravity sensing: cold atom trap onboard a 6U CubeSat in CEAS Space Journal

Description The project has developed a clear understanding of costs associated to quantum sensor gravity satellite missions.
Exploitation Route Future Space missions
Sectors Aerospace, Defence and Marine,Environment,Security and Diplomacy,Other

Description This project is providing the data and background information needed to underpin future quantum gravity sensor satellite missions. It has been presented to ESA and UKSA and project proposals are worked upon.
First Year Of Impact 2018
Sector Other
Impact Types Economic