The only way is up: Space race making a huge difference for Britain, say industry leaders

Technology valuable for 'prosperity, security, discovery and driving efficiencies in public services', major conference told

Thousands attend the UK's largest space conference

Thousands attend the UK's largest space conference
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On the same day as the British Chancellor Jeremy Hunt mentioned the modern space race in his 2024 budget, executives, innovators, engineers and astronauts met at Farnborough Airport to discuss the future of the industry.

The chief executive of the UK Space Agency told the gathering that while “money is tight”, the importance of Britain's space industry should not be underestimated.

Addressing the Space Comm Expo in Farnborough, south-west of London, Dr Paul Bate added that while the looming general election in the UK causes “uncertainty”, what remains absolutely constant is “the value of space-based technology to prosperity, security, discovery and to driving efficiencies in public services”.

“My personal view is that space is going to be a government priority and it’s here to stay,” he added.

“Since its creation 14 years ago, the UK Space Agency has seen four general elections and when we look at what’s changed in that period, the UK’s space sector has gone from strength to strength.”

In his budget speech, Mr Hunt announced £10 million worth of funding for the UK's SaxaVord Spaceport in the Shetland islands, which was granted its licence in December.

“This will make a massive difference to what we are trying to do,” its chief operating officer Debbie Strang said at Space Comm Expo.

SaxaVord, which is a former site of the Royal Air Force (RAF) should see its first mission later this year. The first launch pad at the spaceport is finished and work on the second is under way.

The UK space industry is worth an estimated £17.5 billon to the country's economy with space exports valued at £5.9 billion in 2022.

Within the industry, 1,590 organisations employ 48,800 people, and the UK government aims to grow the country’s share of the global space economy from 6.5 per cent to 10 per cent by 2030.

One exhibitor, Moog, is a poster boy for how far the space industry has developed in recent years.

At its factory in Reading, west of London, it's developed a space vehicle that can deliver small satellites called cube sats to low orbits.

Today the smaller spacecraft are being made by folks who could never have made spacecraft in the past
Chester Crone, business development director, Moog

Its main customer is the aerospace and defence giant Lockheed Martin and the space tug, as it is known, with its six cube sat payload, is set to be launched from the SaxaVord spaceport later this year.

“Today the smaller spacecraft are being made by folks who could never have made spacecraft in the past – the cost is so much lower,” Chester Crone, business development director of Moog, told The National.

“Small start-up companies are now very relevant in the industry, providing a lot of valuable hardware to folks that need it.”

“It’s been a transition. In the last 10 years the space industry has really changed.”

Ready to launch

Dr Bate also underlined the progress Britain has made in launch capabilities, through the development of spaceports across the country.

“We will be a launch nation on track to be the first to launch to orbit from the continent of Europe,” he said.

“It creates highly skilled jobs from Cornwall to the top of Scotland, as well as inspiring the next generation of space professionals.”

Having spaceports from Cornwall, in the far south-west of England, to the Shetlands, off the north coast of Scotland, and with more to come, certainly excited many of the delegates at Space Comm.

“There’s a lot of interest in the UK at the moment because we’ve got some new spaceports and we’ve got quite a large number of launchers coming to the UK already discussing the licensing process,” Colin Macleod, head of space regulation at the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), told The National.

While Britain has been a significant player in creating technologies and products in the global space industry, for many the missing piece of the value chain was the ability to launch from its own territory in a commercial capacity.

Mr Crone at the space technology company Moog, said “bringing launch capability to the UK feels like the right thing to do at the right time”.

“It’s great, it’s about time. I think it’s wonderful that the UK is now focused on having its own launch capabilities and controlling its own destiny.”

International co-operation

However, as technology advances and costs decrease the only way is up for the number of space launches. This in turn means greater regulation, both in the UK and in other countries with space ambitions.

Nearly three years ago, the CAA took over space regulation for the UK. It oversees the commercial airspace that space launches need to cross to get to orbit.

The CAA meets regularly with its counterparts in other countries, given the multinational nature of many space missions.

“I was in the Middle East in January speaking to regulators from that part of the world,” Mr Macleod from the CAA said.

“I’m really willing to share the lessons we’ve learnt setting up a new regulatory capability in the UK with other countries, so that they don’t make some of the mistakes that we might have made, so they can start from a perspective of having evidence of what works and what doesn’t really work in what’s a really complicated regulatory environment.”

International co-operation doesn't stop with regulators either. UK companies not only export products and skills to other countries with space industry ambitions, but also seek to nurture relationships overseas.

Britain's largest aerospace and defence manufacturer, BAE Systems, promotes good practices in space and has solid ties with governments and companies in several countries.

“We are producing a lot of skills in the UK that we are looking to export globally, both to help create jobs here, but also in other places, and build those relationships,” Elizabeth Seward, head of space strategy and market development at BAE Systems, said.

“We actually have two interns from the UAE with us at the moment, learning about space and space engineering as we help grow those international connections.”

The case for space

Dr Bate told the Space Comm Expo that industry must “make the case for space” to policymakers and investors as it reaches out to new audiences.

“Space is no longer a ‘nice to have’. It’s a ‘need to have',” he added.

Mr Crone agreed, simply because of the growing demand for data and the infrastructure and products that the industry creates to meet that demand.

“If you take space away from people completely, shut down all spacecraft in orbit, life would shut down,” he said.

“Your cars can’t drive, your red [traffic] lights won’t work, your stores won’t operate. There’s probably not a single business on the planet that doesn’t need the internet, that doesn’t need access to data.

“Governments would shut down, industries would shut down – the world would be paralysed if all satellites ceased to exist.

“The world needs to be educated on the importance of space.”

Updated: March 07, 2024, 11:27 AM