Last reviewed 20 November 2023
As the world struggles with increasingly intractable mega-problems, the UK’s space sector, in contrast, is emerging quickly as an optimistic and expanding employer, as well as a source of down-to-earth groundbreaking technical innovations and futuristic services, reports Jon Herbert.
Given the popularity of space science fiction, it is perhaps odd that this nascent sector has a fairly low public profile. However, after several years of gestation, its rapid coming-of-age will not only affect daily life for many people but also create significant supply chain opportunities. These include monitoring the environment more closely, improving transport network efficiency, raising agricultural productivity and making space sustainable.
Summer 2023 saw the release of The Case for Space research report from the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology (DSIT). This report identifies space’s economic value, the benefits of UK space activities, plus the Government’s role in a viable space sector.
Aiming for the stars
The UK has made a solid start in a fast-moving industry with the UK Space Agency as its equivalent of NASA to help deliver the National Space Strategy, which brings together UK’s strengths in science, technology and defence.
The National Space Strategy in Action shows how the strategy will be developed across the four pillars of unlocking growth, international collaboration, growing as a science superpower and developing resilient capabilities.
Winning in the space race
The UK space sector also has some 45,000 employees nationwide and generates a £16.4 billion annual income — figures that are expected to grow swiftly.
As Minister for Science, Research and Innovation, George Freeman MP, said recently of its future importance: “The new space race has not just begun, it is well underway.”
He added: “More than ever, space is competitive, space is commercial, and space is crowded.”
Global Britain becoming Galactic Britain
The Prime Minister has committed to a strategy he believes will lead to the UK taking a leading role on the international space stage. Worldwide, as a pathfinding industry, the space economy is expected to be worth some £490 billion by 2030.
The UK wants to further develop its space sector by encouraging more businesses, researchers and innovators to come to Britain and supporting access for UK-based companies to international markets.
However, while partly defence-orientated, its full scope includes many strands of scientific and practical interest.
Space technology to fight climate change
Working with the European Space Agency (ESA), the UK will invest £1.84 billion in the TRUTHS space climate laboratory, which will set standards for satellite climate measurement ten times more accurate than previously.
It is also co-delivering with France the MicroCarb satellite mission to measure atmospheric CO2 around the world. In December 2022, the satellite arrived in the UK for assembly, integration and testing before its 2024 launch.
Expanded horizons for space science and exploration
The UK’s role in global space science and exploration has grown from contributions to the James Webb Space Telescope giving stupendous insight into the universe, the ESA PLATO mission to trace earth-like planets and the UK-built Rosalind Franklin Mars Rover which will go to the “red planet” in 2028.
The UK also has three new ESA Astronauts: Rosemary Coogan, a new career astronaut, John McFall, the world’s first para-astronaut, and Meganne Christian in the astronaut reserve.
Developing world-class space clusters
Strengthening space clusters across England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales as the home of highly innovative companies is another growth priority.
In February 2023, circa £5 million in funding was earmarked for 18 projects to not only help the UK space economy to grow but also support the levelling up agenda.
Making space more sustainable
June 2022 saw the launch of the UK’s Plan for Space Sustainability to ensure that space stays open, safe and accessible.
A Space Sustainability Standard is being developed with industry, plus a framework of standards to manage and measure space debris, improve the UK’s ability to repair satellites and provide standards for sustainable space supply chains.
There will be a regulatory and financing framework to make the City of London and Lloyds a leading global hub for commercial space financing. The UK is also funding demonstrator missions for debris removal and managing the increasingly contested and congested space environment.
Space technology to improve public services
Satellite Applications Catapult works with businesses to develop space and earth observation technologies with practical impacts. These include monitoring infrastructure like bridges for damage, helping farmers harvest more from their land and preventing and mitigating flooding impacts.
Globally, the UK has maintained its commitment to the Disasters Charter, which responds to humanitarian crises, including the 2023 earthquakes in Türkiye and Syria.
Using space to modernise transport
The UK’s ESA investment includes £190 million for innovative projects from satellite drones to driverless haulage communications, with support for the Satellites for Digitalisation of Railways project to improve data connectivity.
These include Earth Observation (EO) and Position Navigation and Timing (PNT), with the aim of using space-enabled services to help UK companies and citizens in a number of ways, including:
providing ubiquitous service access
underpinning the resilience of sectors like food production
natural resource management
emergency responses to flooding, earthquakes and natural disasters
leveraging space-based data gathering to solve global challenges
mobilising space data to make life easier and more efficient for the wider UK community.
UK strengths and opportunities
Robust market presence
The UK has commercial and technical expertise, which includes manufacturing spacecraft and complex payloads, especially for small satellites. It also leads in high-end navigation systems and satellite communications. Additionally, it can support space companies throughout their life cycle, with partners from around the world.
The National Space Strategy focuses on civil and defence opportunities for the UK over the next decade including satellite-enabled broadband, in-orbit servicing and manufacturing, plus space-based energy. The aim is to help companies succeed with innovative regulation, direct business support and creative international partnerships.
Britain is promoting and attracting inward space sector investments, and is committed to incorporating space trade in future Free Trade Agreements in parallel with the development of innovative partnerships such as the UK-Australia Space Bridge.
The UK also has relationships with international spacefaring partners and organisations, like the USA, Japan, India, the United Arab Emirates and the European Space Agency, and can function as a base for world companies to expand and operate as part of a broad international community.
The space economy worth £16.4 billion includes established businesses, researchers and innovators from across nearly all space sub-sectors. The UK leads in modern space regulation that keeps pace with innovation safely.
Only advanced spacefaring economies can offer all this.
UK space assets
Leicester has a cluster of space technology companies, plus Space Park Leicester. Scotland, with circa 7000 employees, is one of the UK’s biggest space employment hubs.
Harwell in England offers national facilities, plus funding organisations. Wales provides horizontal launch (aircraft on runways) facilities, plus advanced photonics and compound semiconductors capabilities (made from two or more elements).