Image credit: Rocket Lab
The space sector is probably as cool as it’s been since NASA took astronauts to the Moon, but in the UK it may seem as if this is a sector happening somewhere else, given that (at least so far) we haven’t launched any satellites (or spacecraft for that matter) from UK soil. Indeed, ask a random member of the public to name a space company, and it’s likely that SpaceX will be the first name on their lips.
As it happens, the UK space sector is large, and growing rapidly, despite having no local launch capability. Some 35,000 (mostly high skilled) people work in the sector, which contributes about £14bn to GDP and supports £250bn. Most of this value is generated by commercialising data coming from satellites, including telecoms and television, although the public sector is also a major customer. Space is, in fact, a largely invisible input guiding your car to your destination (and Pokémon Go to locate Pikachu); enabling mobile phone calls, radio and television to be delivered; providing accurate, reliable, and secure timestamps for financial transactions; combatting illegal fishing; assisting with weather forecasts, searching for buildings without planning consent and measuring polar ice. And on top of that is the space exploration and science and research which consumers and politicians more readily think of when they think “Space”.
As this sector grows, it is also fundamentally changing, from being principally publicly funded and serving public clients, to increasingly being privately funded and serving private customers. This has been driven by technology, where activities which used to be supported by large, expensive, bespoke satellites parked over the equator (and so servicing a defined landmass), can now be supported by satellites which are much smaller, lighter and cheaper – not least through the use of Commercial Off-The-Shelf (COTS) components. Such “smallsats”, are often planned as part of a “constellation” of hundreds or thousands of other smallsats, working together closer to the Earth and where each individual satellite doesn’t serve a defined landmass, but is constantly moving relative to the Earth. Some operators of traditional large, geostationary satellites worry that their technology may be rendered redundant by the smallsats long before the 15-plus year lifespan they were designed to have expires.
This step change in composition, capabilities and financing of the sector is often called “New Space”. But customers of satellites which are cheaper and quicker to build don’t want to rely on traditional rocket launches, which don’t come around very often, and where any smallsat squeezed into the payload will have little say over when the launch takes place, or even where the smallsat gets dropped off in space. And with a sizeable range of constellations being planned, it is clear that global launch capacity has become a pinch point, one which will delay new innovative services being offered and will slow down orders of smallsat construction – an area where the UK has specialised.
Hence the Government’s desire to clear the way for one or more UK spaceports – likely one spaceport for vertical launch and one for horizontal (like a plane) – to support the UK space sector. The Space Industry Act provided the enabling regulatory framework, and now the government has selected the A'Mhoine Peninsula in Sutherland as the UK's first spaceport for vertical launches, a location which offers a path to space far enough away from population centres for when things take an unexpected turn. The backing of a company with the pedigree of Lockheed Martin increases the chance that this spaceport will be a success, although the Government’s target of being ready by 2020 is still challenging.
Commenting on the Government’s announcement, Julian McGougan, techUK’s Executive Director of Satellite said:
“UK companies, supported by foreign investment, are well placed to lead the world in the “New Space” revolution, where thousands of small satellites will enable a range of innovative new services. The UK space sector has a highly skilled, high productivity workforce and invests 8 per cent of revenues in R&D - it is precisely the kind of sector which deserves supporting. The missing link so far has been a convenient, low cost access to Space. I very much welcome the government’s decision on a spaceport in Scotland which supports the UK’s already strong position in small satellites and will open up more opportunities.”