Event round-up – Industries of the Future: Space
The Industries of the Future series explores how emerging and enabling technologies are transforming key industries around the world, assessing the challenges and opportunities for UK businesses, and considering what more we can do to accelerate digital transformation so that innovation is applied to the real economy in ways that change lives.
On 20 September 2023, techUK hosted the latest webinar in our Industries of the Future series. Part of our Supercharging Innovation campaign week, it explored the space industry of tomorrow and panellists spoke about what steps the UK can take to become a superpower across a broad spectrum of emerging and transformative space technologies.
The panel included:
- Daniel Jones, Future Markets Lead, UK Space Agency
- Mike Curtis-Rouse, Head of In-Orbit Servicing, Assembly and Manufacturing, Satellite Applications Catapult
- Imogen Ormerod, Associate, Linklaters LLP
- Polly Gardiner, Chief Financial Officer, Space Forge
- Martin Soltau, co-CEO, Space Solar
The session, which launched techUK’s work on emerging space tech, was chaired by Rory Daniels, Programme Manager for Emerging Technologies, techUK
You can watch the full webinar here, or read our summary of the key insights below:
Please note that the below is a summary of the event, and readers are encouraged to watch the webinar to understand the full details of the discussion.
The session opened with introductions from our speakers.
- Dan explained that the space sector is now in the ‘Model T’ era after decades of ‘single use’ thinking, economics and technologies. In-orbit servicing and manufacturing is a key element of this, underpinned by robotics, AI, imaging, propulsion systems and modular architecture. This will drive other market sectors, including space-based energy and manufacturing. UKSA are developing many of the underpinning technologies and working to ensure that these can be demonstrated in-orbit.
- Mike stated that SA Catapult focuses on supporting tech acceleration for the UK space industry through disruption, resilience and innovation. They are a neutral, trusted partner who can build capability and push industry to move faster. Future opportunities for industry include the assembly of complex structures in space, servicing (such as refuelling) and sustainability. Capabilities to get right include in-space rendezvous, communication and docking. The Catapult’s In-orbit Servicing and Manufacturing Yard uses robots to simulate how spacecraft can manoeuvre. Companies are already working on in-space manufacturing, debris removal, refuelling, commercial space stations, and energy.
- Polly explained that Space Forge is building the World’s first fully returnable and re-launchable satellite platform – the ForgeStar. Advanced materials will be made in space to take advantage of the superior manufacturing conditions before the platform returns to Earth, is refurbished and then re-launched. This could bring industries together and enable significant carbon reductions.
- Imogen cited research predicting that the space ecosystem would reach $1tn USD by 2040, with nearly 40% of this relating to the Internet. This growth is being driven by reductions in launch costs. We will see services cross over, for example space mining delivering materials for use both in space and on Earth. Communications are increasingly becoming higher throughput and lower latency, whilst Internet of Things (IoT) will become even more integrated with space services. According to Space Capital, the UK space industry attracted the fourth largest amount of equity investment between 2013 and 2013, totalling $12bn USD. Better regulation, along with initiatives such as the Astra Carta, will underpin all of this.
- Martin plans to develop the company’s core space-based solar power technology within six years before having a proof of concept delivering substantial power from space by 2029. This will be followed by a further six years to commercialise and industrialise the technology. Space can help directly with new solutions to work alongside weather-dependent renewables. The plummeting cost of high-capacity space launch, combined with modularity, have significantly altered the economics for space-based solar power in recent years. Crucial technologies include autonomous robotic assembly, wireless power transmission and concentrated photovoltaics. The Space Energy Initiative brings together key industries and sectors.
The panel discussion began by looking at the UK space industry at present, including current areas of UK leadership.
- Headline trend: Whilst the UK is racing ahead with certain space solutions or technologies at a faster rate than our infrastructure (funding, skills and talent, etc.) will allow, this is necessary if we are to drive the development of the sector as a whole in a manner that is at the forefront of advancements and globally competitive.
- Satellites: The UK has always been very good at satellite communications, resulting in most of the economic value accrued by the UK. This is unlikely to change in the short or medium term. This extends to satellite manufacturing of satellites (in particular small satellites), as well as the relevant instrumentation, systems and sub-systems to support these. However, we do not possess the physical infrastructure to meet future demand for mass fabrication. Whilst in theory we know how to do this, we do not yet know what form this would take in the UK. The Zero Capital Factory, just outside Glasgow, has the capability to develop up to 50 small satellites in one production run.
I suppose that if one were to go down to Texas to the Starlink factory, I suspect that Mr Musk has some sort of mass fabrication capability where he is developing a lot of satellites at pace. We don’t have that - Dan Jones, UKSA
- Technologies: In many areas, the UK already has strong R&D capabilities, including in digital modelling, photonics, and high-volume semiconductor manufacturing. We also have strong robotics capabilities in non-space domains and lots of interesting in-orbit services and manufacturing (IOSM) research work ongoing.
- Regulation: The introduction of the Space Industry Act 2018 and the underpinning regulations have taken us a long way towards delivering a Twenty-First Century regulatory environment. For example, many companies come to the UK to have their satellites licensed because of our robust, rigorous, and trusted regulation and legislation. Plus, the challenge inherent with space is that it is not territorially distinct, meaning that UK regulations do not necessarily apply to UK assets in space. As a result, international consensus is required, at least between as many space-faring nations as possible. However, global capability and technological innovation is moving faster than the discussions around getting some form of international or multilateral consensus.
We now have at least 70 countries with a space agency so space is no longer something that is only done by a handful of countries. As a result, what you’re then getting is regulations that don’t necessarily talk to each other - Imogen Ormerod, Linklaters LLP
- Funding: The UK space sector lacks many financial products that are available in other industries, such as asset finance (a critical mechanism in the aerospace industry for leasing aircraft). Mass production demands a different approach to finance.
When an airline has to buy a new aircraft, it leases them. There’s a whole raft of finance around this. The space industry doesn’t have this yet. As you go through scale, lots of other opportunities open up - Polly Gardiner, Space Forge
- Strategy: Having a National Space Strategy, which highlights our national objectives and has been endorsed at all levels of Government right to the top, is no small thing.
The discussion then moved onto emerging space trends, industries, and technologies.
- Sustainability: Investors are starting to recognise that Climate Change is real and happening now. This is driving investment in space companies seeking to make launches greener, remove debris and extend the life of space assets. To do space sustainability well, we must prove out many technologies first. This begins with close-proximity operations (involving space craft propulsion, orientation, navigation, docking and communication) and also involves legal questions around responsibility and insurance.
- Responsibility: There is not an inherent trade-off between the commercialisation of emerging space technologies and being responsible actors. Regulation will mitigate as much risk as possible, and the UK does this very effectively. The drive for the UK to be responsible actors will only increase over time.
- Technologies: The UK must now get better at making the most of rapidly declining launch costs, putting a sandpit in orbit, testing, and then repeating.
We’ve got to have the ambition that we can be a leading player and that requires a little bit of a mind shift - Martin Soltau, Space Solar
Before wrapping up the session, the panel turned their thoughts to the question of ‘what next?’.
- Regulation: Industry must understand the level of liability that they are responsible for. Clarity around this is coming. Whilst UK law tries to add detail to the existing international regime, this consists of five high-level UN treaties concluded in the 1970s. These are not sufficiently detailed for the use which we are intending to make of space today. For example, the Moon Agreement has been superseded by the US’s non-binding Artemis Accords. Permanent moon stations and asteroid mining will require a wide range of law and detail around concepts such as intellectual property and technical transfer. This is essential if actors are to have confidence that when something goes wrong, a particular party is responsible and certain mitigations will be put in place.
- Uncertainty: Space SMEs working to long time horizons and navigating significant uncertainty must follow a stepwise approach and work at pace if they are to keep investors interested and demonstrate both outputs and value. SMEs must take a holistic approach, working with regulators and advanced the regulations whilst also focusing on the core technologies. International partnerships are also important. Once a company demonstrates ‘proof of concept’, their solution becomes much more attractive to numerous sectors.
- International collaboration: Certain technologies are advancing faster in some countries than in others. The enabling regulation is an incredibly important part of this, with clear examples of cooperation including the UK-Australia Space Bridge and the Artemis Accords. There are two forces of international consensus, in the US and China, however first and foremost the UK looks to Europe as that is where many of our partners sit. We should go to the right partners for the right reasons whilst being clear about both opportunities and threats.
- Catapults: There is a shared interest between the UK’s Catapults, with clear overlaps in focuses, technologies and capabilities. Planning in a sustainable manner so that the UK sits at the vanguard of key industries is well underway.
Ultimately, space is about partnerships and if we want to be successful and build a civilisation that is sustainable, be that from power, equality or access to data, the only way we can do that is through international collaboration - Mike Curtis-Rouse, SA Catapult
- Funding: Launch cadence, which is an integral part of the space industry, requires non-diluted funding. Many investors are not that supportive of this. Contracts (for materials, launches, partnerships, etc.) would give industry greater confidence to approach investors. The European Space Agency already provides these.
🚀 This webinar was just one of techUK's programme of events on emerging and transformative space technologies.
The next is our Supercharging Investment in Space panel and networking session, which took place on 30 October from 1-3pm at the techUK offices. This will explore how the UK can improve access to growth capital for space SMEs looking to scale.
After hearing from a panel consisting of Government, VCs and wider space industry stakeholders, attendees had the opportunity to participate in a networking session in which they could mix with our speakers and other finance industry stakeholders over pizza in the techUK offices.
You can view the event recording and summary here.
Click below to view our other Supercharging Innovation series:
techUK – Supercharging UK Tech and Innovation
The opportunities of innovation are endless. Automation, IoT, AI, Edge, Quantum, Drones and High Performance Computing all have the power to transform the UK. techUK members lead the development of these technologies. Together we are working with Government and other stakeholders to address tech innovation priorities and build an innovation ecosystem that will benefit people, society, economy and the planet - and supercharge the UK as a global leader in tech and innovation.
For more information, or to get in touch, please visit our Innovation Hub and click ‘contact us’.