UKspace Chair, Graham Peters, considers how the UK space industry is well-placed to be a global sector leader, thanks to its experience, creativity, scientific excellent and strategic partnerships.
What’s all the fuss about? Why does “Space” matter?
We are all living through a period of digital transformation. Few sectors in modern economies are untouched by digital services, and a significant portion of these are enabled by space, impacting our daily lives. Every time we go to work, watch TV, or ask our smartphone for directions, we depend on space.
The latest Size and Health Survey by London Economics suggests that the UK space sector already underpins £300bn or 15% of activity in other sectors across the UK economy. This is set to grow significantly as the pace of change accelerates. Artificial intelligence, quantum computing and 5G network technologies amongst others will lead to new applications – precision agriculture, autonomous vehicles and parcel deliveries by drones – all of which will increasingly depend on services provided by satellite infrastructure, such as precise and resilient positioning, up-to-date mapping, and continuous and reliable communications.
Competing in a global arena
Dependence on space infrastructure as part of the digital economy, is recognised around the world, while space is also a key capability for the military. Past wars were won by control of the seas and later the skies. Now it is about control of cyber and space. The US’s stated aim is to “dominate space”. The European Union seeks “Strategic Autonomy” in space. China has its own great ambitions and is demonstrating its prowess with recent lunar landings.
And it’s not just nation states. The likes of Richard Branson, Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos are making significant investments in new space infrastructures, often based on commitments from governments to buy their services. NASA’s contract with Musk’s space X to provide launch services is just one high profile example.
So how can the UK lead the world?
Britain’s rich heritage in space dates back to the 1940s and the aftermath of the Second World War when British scientists test fired re-assembled V2 rockets from Saxony to 40km altitude – becoming the first peacetime spaceflight. Today, Britain leads the way in the European telecoms satellite programme, thanks to the likes of Inmarsat and Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd (SSTL).
And we continue to punch well above our weight. While NASA’s annual budget is nearly $20 bn (0.5% of federal spending), the UK Space Agency has a modest annual budget of less than £400m, representing 0.0025% of our national GDP and 0.05% of UK government spending.
British success has come from specialising in the commercial use of space, leading to a buoyant and energised industry which employs nearly 42,000 people and generates annual revenues of £14.8bn, of which around a third is exports. And our focus on commercial space hasn’t precluded scientific discovery; our universities are highly respected, contributing to numerous scientific instruments and performing world class science.
Partnerships are also crucial to the UK’s success story, building on a strong tradition of working with our allies, whether it be the ‘5 Eyes’ partners of USA, Canada, New Zealand and Australia, our European partners or our Commonwealth cousins.
Growth through Government-Industry collaboration and commitment
Our goal remains to capture 10% of the world’s space economy by 2030. By focusing on our areas of strength, on domestic and international partnerships, and on the strategic economically valuable parts of the space business, this target will become achievable.
The benefits of strong cross-party support for space and the Space Innovation Growth Strategy in 2010 have led to some key changes in the UK’s space environment, including the creation of the UK Space Agency, European Space Agency (ESA) setting up ESCAT in Harwell, and the creation of the Satellite Applications Catapult. Looking ahead, the Space Growth Partnership (SGP) will play an important role, bringing together different parts of industry, led through UKspace, with senior representatives from UKSA, UKRI, the Catapult, Department for International Trade and the Space Academic Network (SPAN).
But we need to do more. The changing private sector engagement in space – including miniaturisation of satellites; new mega constellations; cleaning up the space environment; and in-orbit manufacturing – offers huge new opportunities. With these, come big challenges too, particularly from the increasing international competition and Brexit headwinds.
To achieve our goal of being a world leader, the UK space sector will work with government to establish a National Space Framework that sets out UK space’s strategic priorities founded on the principle that space is not an end itself, but an increasingly important enabler of three overlapping goals: Prosperity and Knowledge, Security and Protection, and Projection of our Global Influence. An extended consideration is the creation of a National Space Council reporting to Cabinet Office to align key ministries.
Such commitments would lead to a new sustained and coherent National Space Programme (NSP), which would fund projects of national interest including partnerships with nations outside Europe to strengthen our future trading relationships, as well as develop capabilities in areas such as in-space robotics, debris removal and low cost access to space. The NSP would sit alongside our investment in ESA which will continue to be an important way to maintain engagement with our European partners. And finally, the sector is ready to take practical steps with government on skills, developing a National Space Skills Institute to ensure we can fully support the sector’s growth.