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Has space reached its ‘internet moment’?

With the new National Space Strategy in place has the UK space sector reached a similar inflection point to that of the Internet in the 1990s?

For many people the space sector has reached a point not dissimilar to that reached by the Internet over 20 years ago, when companies started to use it to create new businesses and revenue streams by going online. So, has the space industry reached a similar transformative state with new technology that will help to transform sectors well beyond those associated with space itself?

Governments around the world are now more aware than ever of the importance of space, especially in relation to managing and monitoring climate change, and the need to create and support a viable space industry.

The UK was the world’s third ever space-faring nation, after the former Soviet Union and the US. In the years that followed the Apollo programme, several UK space companies, such as Inmarsat and Surrey Satellite Technology, were created, and proved to be extremely successful.

However, anyone describing the UK as being a leading global space power would have been wide of the mark. While the UK has developed and constructed many satellites it has little experience of launching them and has not independently launched any since 1971 – in fact, today just 5 per cent of the 2600 satellites currently in orbit are registered in the UK.

In the past twenty years all that has changed with space now worth in excess of £16 billion per year to the UK economy, having trebled in size since 2010, while £300bn of wider UK GDP is supported by satellite services, including telecoms, metrology, earth observation and navigation.

The industry is now better placed to access support networks, funding opportunities and business advice, and the space sector is now seen as a great place for start-ups.

To better support the UK’s thriving commercial space sector, the British Government and the UK Space Agency recently launched a National Space Strategy, with the stated aim of making the UK a world class space nation.

The strategy is intended to enable businesses in the sector to innovate and grow by unlocking private finance, while also supporting international space research.

The sector has tended to be funded by specialists, but today a much wider range of investors are now actively investing in space as they become aware of the range and depth of transformative applications that are being developed and which are expected to have a significant impact on a wider range of sectors.

"There is a massive global appetite from investors, but the majority of new space companies are still private, from SpaceX downwards, so the public market has struggled to invest in the space sector," according to Mark Boggett, chief executive of British venture capital firm Seraphim.

In a bid to address this in July Seraphim created the Seraphim Space Investment Trust which will enable investors to access a portfolio of private space companies - in the process it has already raised £150m to invest both in its existing portfolio and in new space start-ups.

In addition, a growing number of corporate players are investing in space technology and in some cases establishing accelerators to drive innovation.

In September BAE Systems acquired In-Space Missions, a UK company that designs, builds and operates satellite systems.

At the time BAE said that the move would enable it to combine its own experience in secure satellite communications with In-Space Missions’ full lifecycle satellite capability. In-Space Missions specialises in earth observation, satellite communications, navigation, and space science.

“The UK has an opportunity to be a global player in the growing low earth orbit space market, as well as servicing its own sovereign defence and commercial needs,” said Ben Hudson, Chief Technology Officer at BAE Systems. “This acquisition will allow us to combine a range of space capabilities that help deliver information advantage, multi-domain operations and networking for our customers.”

The increased interest in space is being driven, in part, by technology firms like SpaceX and OneWeb who are launching smaller satellites - known as nanosats - into low Earth orbit to collect data on weather, heat signatures and atmospheric conditions to help farmers, and to monitor things like flood defences, traffic and construction sites.

These small nanosats are changing the economics of the sector and allowing a much broader of firms to gain access to space and to then benefit from space technologies.

National Space Strategy

The UK Government’s National Space Strategy, for the first time, brings together civil and defence space activities to deliver an integrated approach to the industry.

Over a thousand organisations work in the sector and employ over 45,000 people in the UK and it is a source of thousands of highly skilled jobs, and the strategy looks to capitalise on the UK’s strengths in satellite manufacturing and communications, while addressing the needs of high-growth areas, such as satellite broadband operations.

According to the strategy’s Ten Point Plan, the UK will use space technology to improve public services, while the UK will continue to work with the European Space Agency (ESA) and with the UN to tackle challenges like space debris removal and climate change.

According to George Freeman, Minister for Science, Technology & Innovation, “The UK Space Strategy will shape the next five years of our work and investment into the sector and it is intended to drive the UK’s global leadership in science, technology and innovation – three critical parts of the broader ecosystem. It forms an important part of our wider policy to turbo-charge growth, to increase our influence as a scientific power through international collaboration and deliver a more inclusive economy here in the UK.”

The government’s stated aim it to make the UK the most attractive place in Europe for those looking to launch into orbit and beyond.

“This is a sector that’s critical to the UK economy,” said Freeman. “The global small satellite launch market is set to worth £400bn by 2030 and our aim is for the UK to account for 10% of that market. The growth of the next few years is set to be phenomenal as space has become fundamental to every aspect of our lives – from communications to climate, from managing climate change to cyber security. We rely on the space economy and its ecosystem every day.”

According to Freeman there is a global race in terms of the space economy and while the UK certainly has some strong strengths it can play to, it’s a sector where collaboration will be critical.

The UK government has said that the UK’s ongoing membership of the European Space Agency (Esa) will not be affected by Brexit. Esa is not an EU institution. But the UK’s departure from the EU will have an impact to varying degrees on the UK’s involvement in a number of European space programmes. These include the satellite navigation programme Galileo, Copernicus Earth Observation and the EU Space Surveillance and Tracking programme.

“Despite that, it’s only through international collaboration that we will be able to truly deliver the opportunities that are being opened up to us by the space sector,” added Freeman. “We want to see space boost economic growth, extend our global influence, and to drive a more inclusive economy here in the UK.”

The Strategy is certainly ambitious as it looks to bring investors, the private and public sectors, technologists, researchers, and scientists together.

“In 2022 the UK will become the first country in Europe to launch a rocket into space, and we’re aiming to become the leading location in Europe by 2030 for the small payload market,” said Freeman. “From Cornwall to the Shetlands the UK has the right geography to support this ambition. But we see the space sector as not just about cutting-edge science but also as a chance to create and shape a new economy with new industries and skills.”

Freeman emphasised the importance of collaboration in delivering this and said that the government would ensure that key technologies such as artificial intelligence and robotics, which are seen as critical to the sector, are effectively backed by government.

“Fundamentally the success of this sector is reliant on collaboration if we are to seize the opportunity to shape a new economy – it’s an incredibly exciting new sector.”

New opportunities

Climate change and the industrialisation of space are issues that come up time and again – for example, server farms and data centres could be relocated to space and solar power could be operated far more cheaply there than is currently the case here on earth.

For many working in the sector space should be seen as a solution to climate change and not just part of the broader industrial complex.

Data from space is being used to monitor the climate and chart changes, for example, while Bristol-based Space Forge’s is working to harness the power of space by manufacturing high-performance products impossible to produce on Earth.

The company aims to develop processes which reduce energy consumption and carbon dioxide emissions. The permanent microgravity, which is only found in space, will enable billions of new alloys to be made that were previously out of reach and then, by bringing them back to Earth, could be used to revolutionise renewable energy, transport and computing industries.

It’s this kind of work that could eventually enable space manufacture to be a viable option for products that could significantly help to reduce global carbon emissions.

In terms of climate change and environmental management the UK government has recently awarded funding to a number of UK organisations – among the projects receiving the cash is one led by Global Satellite Vu, which is to build a compact high-resolution infrared camera for satellites to measure thermal emissions from homes, schools and places of work, helping to improve energy efficiency.

The Open University in Milton Keynes will develop the mission concept for “TreeView”, a forestry and management tool that will support a nature-based solution to tackling climate change by monitoring the health of trees from space.

“Satellites in space are helping us solve some of the most significant challenges we face, from climate change to cyber-attacks and through the National Space Strategy we are putting the UK at the forefront of unleashing these innovations,” said Freeman. “This new funding will take game-changing ideas from the UK space sector and our brilliant scientists and turn them into reality.”

he funding comes from the UK Space Agency's National Space Innovation Programme (NSIP) and was announced at the COP 26 climate talks in Glasgow.

Space has an essential and growing role to play in the fight against climate change. At present, satellites collect half of the 56 types of data that’s need to measure and understand climate change.

The UK is certainly well place to lead the world in using satellite technology to tackle climate change.

But not only that. By properly investing in the UK space industry, the UK could capitalise on a massive global market in environmental protection and monitoring, mitigating the effects of climate change while providing solutions to reduce carbon emissions.

With government, investors and industry beginning to align could the UK be embarking on what many people see as a new industrial revolution, that could create thousands of new and green jobs?

Author
Neil Tyler

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