Nick Martindale 8 Dec 2016 09:00am

Sector profile: space

The UK’s space industry is flourishing on the back of government funding, high-profile projects and increasingly real-world applications. Nick Martindale explores a sector that’s firmly back in fashion

Perhaps surprisingly, the UK’s space sector is in rude health. High-profile projects such as the European Space Agency (ESA) Rosetta initiative and NASA’s Juno probe landing on Jupiter have helped to raise the profile, while – closer to home – British astronaut Tim Peake’s six-month trip to the International Space Station also captured the public’s imagination.

According to the most recent UK Space Innovation and Growth Strategy report, which came out in 2015, the UK space sector today is worth £11.8bn, having grown at a rate of 8.6% per year since 2010, and directly employs 37,000 people, supporting around 115,000 jobs.

The Space Innovation and Growth Strategy (IGS) is a partnership of private companies and bodies such as the UK Space Agency, the Satellite Applications Catapult and Innovate UK. Set up in 2010, it aims to boost the UK’s share of the global space market from 6% to 10% by 2030.

The UK government invests around £50m per year into the sector, according to the IGS report, and puts £300m into ESA, which recently opened its new European Centre for Space Applications and Telecommunications at Harwell, designed to foster innovation and support enterprises looking to start up in the sector.

 Larger organisations are helping to develop the industry, on the back of government funding. Airbus Defence and Space, for instance, hopes to land the ExoMars mission on the surface of the Red Planet in 2019, making it the first European Mars Rover to have been developed, built and tested in the UK.

Lockheed Martin is also increasing its UK profile, working with ESA on the Space Rider re-usable spacecraft, as well as the Orion deep space exploration vehicle for NASA. “We’re also working on a concept for an architecture called Mars Base Camp to send humans to Mars by 2028,” says Paul Davey, civil space business development director. “Astronauts would be transported from Earth to a Mars-orbiting science laboratory where they can perform real-time scientific exploration, analyse Martian rock and soil samples and confirm the ideal place to land humans on the surface in the 2030s.”

Much of the £11bn market today lies in downstream applications, says Robert Elliott, head of the global sensing and satellite centre at the National Physical Laboratory, particularly location-based services and timing or synchronisation systems using satellite information.

“Applications that use space technologies or space-enabled services is where a lot of innovation and development is taking place,” he says.

He gives the example of the Copernicus programme, now providing huge amounts of data about the Earth and its atmosphere, which can help with applications from weather to climate control, as well as more everyday applications such as the Uber taxi service or even Pokémon Go, both of which rely on location-based data.

Satellite applications are a major focus of attention for Airbus, alongside its upstream space business, says Dr Mike Healy, head of procurement. This can be applications such as direct-to-home digital TV, he says, but also the use of radar in space for weather forecasting and even spotting areas on Earth, such as better-growing sections of farmers’ fields, to help farmers make efficient use of water or fertiliser. “Another example is financial transactions in the City of London, which are time-stamped using GPS information. That’s extremely accurate and it’s the same everywhere in the world,” says Healy. “No-one would associate satellites with financial transactions but it’s a critical part of the process.”

Alongside the growth of businesses on the back of satellites, there is also potential for technology developed for use in space to be applied elsewhere. One example is Insect Research Systems, set up when Dr Geraint Morgan, business development manager at the School of Physical Sciences at the Open University, met his future business partner Jason Littler at Harwell.

“He is a pest controller and had specialised in the detection of bed bugs,” he says. “He would literally take the room apart to look for bed bugs and if he found them then he would treat them. But he’d always had the impression that he could smell them, especially when the infestation was quite high.”

Drawing on gas analyser technology developed for use on the Rosetta mission, the two set about building a portable system that would “smell” when bed bugs are present. The business has attracted funding from the ESA Business Incubation Centre, and from Innovate UK through the Harwell Space Launchpad, and hopes to give a future investor confidence to put the product into manufacture.

Yet the sector is not without challenges. Healy says there is a constant balance to be struck between pushing new technology and innovation and ensuring reliability. “The more standardisation we can drive the more efficient we are,” he says.

“But that needs to be balanced with innovation and creativity because if we stand still then someone else comes past us.” One example of pushing the boundaries is its new joint venture with Greg Wyler’s OneWeb project, to design and manufacture 900 microsatellites to enable affordable broadband for rural and underdeveloped locations.

Funding is also an issue, particularly before projects have been tried and tested. “The real challenge once you have developed it, particularly for space hardware, is getting it into orbit,” says John Yates, a satellite communications consultant and former chair of the IET’s space committee. “Nobody wants to be the first to fly a new piece of equipment.” This is where government support – and that of the ESA – is so vital, he adds.

This was something Warren East, CEO of Rolls-Royce, also referred to in a recent white paper written by the IET and ICAEW that made the case for continued investment in engineering and technology as part of the government’s new industrial strategy. “Development to adoption at Rolls-Royce can be a 15- to 20-year cycle,” he says. “Our issue is not so much the quantum of support as the continuity over the long term.”

Inspiring the next generation

The UK Space Agency recently ran two Schools Conferences sessions, at the Universities of Portsmouth and York, where children were able to present work that had been inspired by Tim Peake’s Principia mission to the man himself.

The £3m educational project is the latest in a series of initiatives designed to encourage more children to think about space as a career. The Science and Technology Facilities Council also operates a number of events for schools at its national laboratories, and even lets children borrow samples of moon rock brought back to Earth by the NASA Apollo astronauts.

“Trying to inspire children to take a role in science and engineering is not just a challenge for the space industry but many engineering and scientific sectors that rely on those skills,” says Robert Elliott, head of the global sensing and satellite centre at the National Physical Laboratory. “But space exploration and manned flights has always inspired children and adults to take an interest in scientific endeavours, and the Tim Peake mission epitomised that.

“Yet this is also a space in which venture capitalists are becoming increasingly interested, particularly as downstream applications offer a clearer return on investment. Mark Boggett is managing director of Seraphim Capital, which recently introduced a dedicated space fund to help corporates from the space industry to support organisations that have a proven concept.

The fund will look at four areas: technologies designed for the space sector that could have other uses; downstream applications using data from satellites; upstream space activity; and a looser, “catch-all” category of “space-enabling technologies”. The business intends to back around four organisations in the next year, raising £1m each.

“The industry has become more receptive to using new technologies, especially hybrid technologies that sit currently outside a field of use of the space industry, but where there is clearly application for those technologies,” Boggett says.

Other trends will also ensure this sector remains buoyant. Elliott points to a push towards re-usable launch vehicles being developed by the likes of SpaceX, as well as the single-stage-to-orbit SABRE spaceplan engine developed by the British company Reaction Engines, creating the potential for aircraft to enter space. “We also have a very strong government commitment to build a UK space port in the next few years, and they’re even talking about that being up and running by 2020,” he says. “That could really capitalise on these low-cost space transportation technologies.”

Yates, meanwhile, highlights the rush to launch much smaller – but more – satellites into orbit, at a fraction of the cost of traditional satellites. “The business model has yet to be proven but it has attracted money from dot com billionaires,” he says. “There’s a huge amount of enthusiasm for these small satellites in constellations. But we’re now seeing a consolidation, where the new space concepts that have business legs will continue and perhaps some of the others will fall away. There will be a settling down in the coming years.”

Making tracks

Stuart Millward was out running when he inadvertently came across an elderly lady who had fallen from a ladder, which gave him the idea for Satsafe Technologies.
 Wanting to devise a system that would alert the emergency services or family to people who might have had an accident, he set about developing a “black box” that could be fitted to any vehicle, drawing on location data gleaned from satellites.

“We entered the European Space Navigation competition with that idea and we were the UK finalist, and that was really the launch pad,” he recalls. “We got a bit of Innovate UK funding to explore how we could bring it to market, which involved five days of intense support from the Satellite Applications Catapult team at Harwell.

“From that we entered a competition to engage with the European Space Agency’s business incubator to bring the idea to market, which we won a place on and started in January this year.”
The business has already picked up a customer, Transport for Greater Manchester, which is putting its GPS solution on to its fleet of bikes, and has also been appointed as the city’s partner for road safety following its successful bid in Innovate UK’s Smart City demonstrator project.