As commercial space ventures boom and satellite- driven technologies become ever more relied upon in daily life, Britain is well placed to be a star of the space economy. But to fully explore this brave new world, experts say it needs the right government support
For an industry measured in awe-inspiring giant leaps the launch of the UK Space Agency [UKSA] in April 2010 may have seemed like a relatively small step for mankind. With so much of space-business history dominated by the US and Russia, the casual observer could be forgiven for assuming that the UK has no meaningful space industry at all. This, however, is far from the truth and a reason the government set up UKSA to co-ordinate and raise awareness of a mission to double Britain's market share in space to 10 per cent by 2030 – a stake estimated to become worth £40bn and 100,000 new jobs.
"As a sector, it's already in a pretty healthy position," says David Williams, chief executive of UKSA. "And it's been resilient, too. We split it into two parts – 'upstream', the development of hardware and space systems, and 'downstream', the services that develop from space such as satellite broadcasting, mobile communications and so on. They are growing sectors and they're hi-tech, which fits with government philosophy."
Both elements of the UK space sector have enjoyed a decade of growth – with the downstream sector, dominated by broadcasting and particularly BSkyB, contributing most to an £8bn turnover.
"Over the past 15 years, the way society uses space has changed dramatically," says Williams. "We have things like GPS in cars and satellite TV broadcasting – particularly in sport and news. Society uses space as a transparent infrastructure for everyday life. And then there's also a big government sector, of course, particularly in our understanding of climate and the environment. So, what the UK Space Agency does is bring together all the funding for civil space – all the science, telecommunications and broadcasting support that the government gives, and also our European programmes with the European Space Agency (ESA)."
Much of UKSA's investment with ESA is going into Galileo, a new high-precision satellite navigation system which, from 2014, will begin to free Europe from reliance on America's GPS, or the Chinese and Russian alternatives. The UK company to benefit from this is Surrey Satellite Technology, which, along with German firm OHB System, was awarded a £510m contract to build 14 satellites for Galileo.
The government is certainly investing in space – but at £268m a year the sector is one of the least subsidised areas of the economy, and one that provides 24,900 jobs and 60,000 more through indirect sources.
"We're looking for projects that at the base level are jointly funded for the research, but also which are gearing to raise money on capital markets," says Williams. "For example, one of our big successes has been a satellite project called Alphasat with [London-based] Inmarsat. On the basis of £35m from government, they have raised £250m to go alongside that to run the programme. We also work with the Technology Strategy Board, the government innovation agency, to really get UK industry thinking about ways they can exploit the high-quality information that will come from new systems like Galileo."
BRAVE NEW WORLD
But while the UK is pursuing continued growth in established areas such as satellite construction, a new and exciting area of space opportunity is rapidly opening up for which we're less prepared. When Atlantis touched down on 21 July last year, bringing an end to Nasa's 30-year space shuttle programme, a new era opened in which the US space agency will pay private space operators to take people and cargoes into orbit. Meanwhile, technological advances have seen the enormous cost of blasting into orbit continue to fall – making the space race accessible to more companies, and space tourism a viable business.
One operator taking advantage of this is Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic, which will begin commercial sub-orbital flight operations as early as next year from its Spaceport America base in New Mexico.
George T. Whitesides, chief executive of Virgin Galactic, and former chief of staff at Nasa, told Director that it's quite feasible that the company could also be flying from a UK spaceport in the not-too-distant future. "Our first priority is to get started safely in New Mexico," he says. "But over time I see the company operating from a variety of different bases. Is it possible that the UK would be one of those? Certainly."
But for this to become a money-spinning reality for Britain, there is much work to be done by government. The UK has no safety, environmental or flight regulations in place for space, making it difficult for operators to assess the costs of setting up here.
"Both the UK and US have highly developed aviation regulatory requirements, but there is a big difference between the nations when it comes to space transportation," says Whitesides. "The right kind of regulatory environment which allows experimentation and sets up a regime for the early work required is important. That's something the UK could look at."
It's a barrier that UKSA is already working to break through, says Williams. "The regulatory framework is complex because of the distinction between an aircraft and a rocket," he explains. "Until it gets to 60,000ft it's an aircraft and needs aircraft clearance. Once it clears that it's a rocket and needs space clearance. The Civil Aviation Authority jurisdiction on regulating aircraft has just moved to the European Aviation Safety Agency, so we're now engaging with this organisation to get the right regulation in place. It's a long- term process... we're looking at five to 15 years for a spaceport in the UK."
PREPARING FOR LIFT-OFF
UK spaceport locations are a long-term consideration. With some horizontal take- off vehicles in development requiring runways of more than 16,000ft (the UK's longest is 12,800ft at Heathrow), the likely requirement for land and sea exclusion zones around a spaceport, the need for airspace free of other traffic and a need to keep clear of large populations, the choice is focused on a handful of candidates. "There are airfields on Scotland's east coast that have been looked at because you've got good take-off and landing potential in low-population areas," says Williams.
Potential complications of Scottish independence aside, if Spaceport UK becomes a reality there are multiple parties already interested in establishing operations here, says Jim Bennett, a US- based private space launch specialist of more than 30 years who is consulting for five of the major commercial space start- ups. "A couple of my clients are already interested in flying out of the UK, so they're watching the regulatory process very keenly and saying 'we hope it's something we can work with'. But, frankly, if it isn't, it's not going to be cost-effective to go into the UK. They must look at world-best practices and regulations so as not to shut out interested companies."
To achieve this, Bennett says UKSA should look beyond its ties with ESA: "[The ESA relationship] is a good base you can build on. But on top of that the UK has to start looking out in all directions and not just back towards Brussels," he says. "Go and strengthen lateral ties – with the Canadian Space Agency, for example. They work with Nasa, with ESA, with everybody, and it's turned Canada into a mid-level niche player – the same scale of activity in the UK could easily be run as a government agency. On the sub-orbital launch regulatory side, the UK has been focusing excessively on pan-European discussions."
Williams says the UK will continue to focus first on its work with ESA, which reaches a crucial point in November when all 19 member states meet to agree budgets and programmes for the next five years. "We do talk to [other nations] but our first port of call is the UK, then Europe, then abroad, I think that's a reasonable approach," he says. "The meeting will be difficult, coming at a difficult time for public finance. We've got to focus on not losing any of the things we're doing today. But we'd also like to see a focus on activities that lead to genuine growth in the economy, more telecoms, more broadband, a growth in environmental service support, and for it to occur in a commercial environment."
But while budgets and investment remain a concern, Bennett believes Britain still has a unique opportunity to muscle in on a space flight sector that once required participants to have vast capital. He says: "The emergence of the commercial space world provides an unprecedented opportunity to the UK to begin laterally – by that I mean not having to go back and replicate the chain of development the US followed, or indeed Russia or France. It's much more international now, and space is becoming much more like many other conventional business areas that Britain has a strong hand in."
FREEING UP SPACE
Another factor in making future space projects more economically viable is the aforementioned fall in the cost of reaching low-earth orbit (a distance of between 100 and 1,260 miles from Earth's surface). The cost of delivering a kilo of material into orbit on a Nasa shuttle was up to $60,000 (£38,000). Soon, the Falcon 9 craft being developed by the private SpaceX company in the US – which completed two successful test flights in 2010 – will be able to take
a kilo into space for just $5,359. And if Skylon – an ambitious concept for a reusable, unpiloted, horizontal take-off craft designed by UK-based company Reaction Engines – can gain lift-off, that price could come down to $1,000 a kilo.
"If it works, it's a game-changer because it promises a genuine single-stage-to-orbit flight which takes off like an aircraft, flies like a rocket and returns," says Williams. "If it's built right and can refly on short timescales then it could change everything in terms of cost per kilogram in orbit. It will be an expensive project, and the question s: Where will the funding come from? We hope most of it will come from the private sector. So we must carefully consider what part of the key technologies would it be good for the UK to hold onto, and who will
be our international partners to make it work at an international level."
If it gets the financial backing – and the required development funding is believed to be $12bn – then the first Skylon prototype could be ready to fly out of a theoretical UK spaceport by the early 2020s. It's the kind of quick-turnaround craft that would have a huge interest for research organisations which will pay to fly their experiments into space, says Bennett. "If you wanted to send a space experiment on a Nasa sub-orbital rocket, you'd have to reserve a place 10 years in advance, lock down the design years in advance, make it fully automated and comply with their other restrictions," he explains.
"But with the [private] sub-orbital rockets you could fly it much sooner, have the experimenter travel with it to supervise in some cases, change the experiment if the results were unexpected and fly again within a short space of time," he continues. "Because of this, research institutions are tremendously excited and they've begun buying flights out of their own funds. Southwest Research Institute in Texas, one of the major conductors of space research, went out and reserved six flights with Virgin Galactic and six with [California-
based private company] XCor, which will be flown within the next couple of years."
So whether it's through the small steps of continued growth through satellite building, broadcasting and communications or a giant leap into operating a thriving spaceport for scientists and space tourists, it's clear that – two years on from the launch of UKSA – Britain is well placed in the brave new world of the space economy. "Globally, there's a movement toward lower-cost space technologies, enabling a greater number of market entrants and also customers," says Whitesides. "Given the way the UK space industry has developed over the last couple of decades, it's well positioned for that. It's an exciting time."
For a comprehensive analysis of the British space economy, read the new report for the IoD by Dan Lewis, chief executive of Future Energy Strategies and the Economic Policy Centre. Click here to download the PDF
UK space economy in numbers
£40bn The value of the UK space industry if it can double its market share by 2030
100,000 The number of new jobs that may be created if Britain's space economy keeps growing
Space race: the cost of taking a kilo of material into low-earth orbit
£38,000 The price of taking the material into orbit on a Nasa shuttle
£3,400 The cost for the US-developed Falcon 9 craft to deliver the material
£630 The price if Skylon – designed by a British company – undertook the task