With innovations ranging from revolutionary rocket engines to satellite systems for maximising crop yield, the space industry is the fastest-growing sector of Britain’s economy. Graham Turnock, chief executive of the UK Space Agency, explains its bold mission, how SMEs can cash in – and why you should ‘lead like a satellite’
In early 2021, after what scientists hope will be a favourable thud on to the surface of the planet’s northern hemisphere, the ExoMars rover will trundle off its landing platform and start searching for signs of Martian life.
It will be a significant moment in our exploration of the Solar System and also a big day for the town of Stevenage, Hertfordshire, where Airbus is building the rover for the European Space Agency (ESA).
The ExoMars project has been made possible by an investment of €287m (£254m) from the UK Space Agency, the government body at the vanguard of our burgeoning space industry.
When the agency was established in April 2010 a few Spock-like eyebrows were raised – not least because its launch was accompanied by a bold target for the UK to seize 10 per cent of the global space market by 2030 in a sector dominated by the US, Russia, China and India.
But, as the organisation heads towards its eighth birthday, those brows are somewhat less elevated.
The most recent edition of its The Size & Health of the UK Space Industry report, published in December 2016, showed that the sector’s annual turnover had more than doubled in a decade: from £6.3bn in 2004-05 to £13.7bn in 2014-15 – equivalent to 6.5 per cent of the global space economy. It also revealed that direct employment in the industry had increased at six per cent a year to stand at 38,522 jobs.
Stars of the industry include Oxfordshire-based firm Reaction Engines. The company’s jet-rocket hybrid, Sabre, is a revolutionary technology that could soon change the face of both space exploration and international travel.
“They cracked an important technical challenge, which unlocked £60m of grant money from us,” explains the UK Space Agency’s chief executive, Graham Turnock, at Director’s cover shoot.
“They are now working hard at developing an engine that could revolutionise space travel by enabling the reuse of rockets.
“With today’s rockets, it’s a bit like building a Boeing 747 and using it only once before dumping it in space or at sea – incredibly expensive.
“This technology would enable a rocket to be used multiple times. It could enable very rapid global spaceplane travel – from the UK to Australia, for example – and also make putting satellites into space very quick and easy.”
Indeed, satellites account for a big part of our space industry’s activities. It’s estimated that the UK produces about a quarter of all large communication satellites. It is also a leading manufacturer of miniaturised cubesats.
The next stage, Turnock says, is to make the nation a viable launchpad for smaller satellites. To this end, the government introduced its space industry bill in June 2017.
It said that the publication marked “the first step in the process to create new laws and a regulatory framework to enable exciting new technologies to operate safely from the UK”.
According to the bill’s introductory section, this would feature “powers to license a wide range of spaceflight activities, including vertically launched rockets, spaceplanes, satellite operation, spaceports and other technologies”.
“There’s potentially a very big market in small satellite launch,” Turnock says. “The UK is extremely well placed to deliver that, because there’s perhaps less of a willingness on the part of manufacturers here to ship their satellites around the world.
“If we want to encourage small satellite manufacture in the UK, it will be very valuable to have a launch capability here. The space industry bill would give us the regulatory framework to do that. We could have satellites launching from the UK as early as 2020. That is really very exciting.”
Businesses have already been invited to bid for UK Space Agency grants of £10m to help develop spaceflight from these shores, with a closing date of 28 April 2018. Locations including Llanbedr in Wales, Stornoway in Scotland and Newquay in England have been identified as possible launch sites.
A universe of opportunity…
In the space industry, the manufacture of hardware and its launch into space is known as upstream activity, but much of the future commercial potential in the sector, especially for SMEs that are perhaps yet to consider space as an opportunity, comes from the downstream side, such as the development of apps making use of data from satellites.
To nurture such ventures, The Satellite Applications Catapult company was established in 2013. Its base in Harwell, Oxfordshire, is being developed into “a cluster of businesses that have the opportunity to learn from one another and where potential customers can meet several businesses at once”, Turnock says.
Last July the UK Space Agency announced a further £100m investment in the site, including funds to create a national satellite testing facility.
“It’s also crucial that we foster a private investment market,” he adds, highlighting the November 2016 launch of Seraphim Capital. This £80m space-tech venture fund, incorporating £30m from the British Business Bank, will focus on early-stage businesses.
“It’s the largest of its kind and it’s looking to fund and attract the best new space companies working in downstream applications to the UK. It’s very exciting.”
So which other businesses could benefit from all these developments?
“Space is moving into sectors such as agriculture and healthcare,” Turnock says. “In farming we’re getting to a point where, using satellites, you can observe crops down to a very high resolution – 60sq cm, for example.
“You can see whether a crop is developing better in one part of a field than it is in another. You can even observe soil humidity from space. This creates huge potential for automated farming, where you can then intervene with a crop and maximise your harvest.
“Then in healthcare there’s the ability to reach remote locations. There was an experiment in Scotland with mobile breast screening, for instance.
“You don’t have to go to the hospital; the hospital effectively comes to you and satellite communication back to the hospital means that you get your results quickly.”
The agency’s participation in the International Partnership Programme is a further demonstration of the vast potential of satellite applications.
The five-year initiative is a £152m commitment to tackling problems faced by developing countries through cutting-edge technology and research.
“Its activities include the training of health workers in rural parts of Africa, keeping them up to date with the latest health threats and treatment methods; maritime management, because some countries have real problems with rogue fishing; and the surveillance of forests for illegal logging activities.
“Space has this amazing ability to reach remote locations and enable people to understand what’s happening in areas not easily reached using terrestrial transport,” Turnock says.
Bold ambitions and Brexit
International co-operation is one of the characterising traits of this industry. For the UK Space Agency, it’s the source of the achievement of which Turnock is most proud.
“One of the really big successes for us was making the case for a large increase in the UK’s contribution to ESA,” he says.
“We persuaded the Treasury to put £1.44bn of additional funding into ESA over five years from 2016. That then enabled the UK to take a lead in three critical areas of work: Earth observation, navigation and communication.
“We see great potential for commercial applications to be built off those sectors. We’ve come from a position where the UK wasn’t really a major player in ESA to one where we really are.”
In April 2017 the UK Space Agency announced a further European collaboration with its French counterpart CNES: a satellite mission called MicroCarb, which will measure global sources and sinks of carbon dioxide. But, with so much clearly riding on our co-operation with partners in the EU, what effect could Brexit have on the UK’s ambitions in space?
“We’re fortunate that ESA isn’t part of the EU’s institutional framework, so leaving the EU doesn’t mean that we’re leaving ESA.
“We have, if anything, strengthened our involvement in ESA through our contribution to its budget, so the first thing to emphasise is that we’re absolutely not leaving Europe in space,” Turnock stresses.
“The second thing – set out in the papers that the government has published on science, technology and defence – is that we’re very much interested in discussions
with the EU about our continued future involvement in the two big EU-funded space programmes: Galileo and Copernicus.
“But, more generally, Brexit obviously creates uncertainty about access to skills and the movement of goods. Space is a highly integrated European market, with companies such as Airbus operating on a number of sites.
“We’re therefore working closely with those firms to ensure that we understand Brexit’s potential effects and factor these into our contribution to the exit negotiations.”
Brexit aside, finding enough skilled workers is a headache for leaders in many industries. How is the agency ensuring that the next generation of talent will come through to ensure that the space industry retains its impressive record of being 2.7 times more productive per head than the UK average?
“First, businesses have a strong incentive to grow some of those skills themselves through the apprenticeship levy,” Turnock says.
“Second, we are very focused on supporting Stem education. Tim Peake’s mission to the International Space Station was fantastic for that. We worked hard with Tim to get lots of schools doing some of the same experiments that he was doing, generating greater interest among schoolchildren in Stem subjects.”
The agency calculates that it engaged 1.6 million pupils – 15 per cent of the UK school population – through Peake’s mission. With the British astronaut due to go into space again, it will be looking to build on this figure when he does.
The future for the UK in space certainly looks bright, but where does Turnock envisage we’ll have got to in five, 10 and even 20 years’ time?
“In five years I’d say we’ll see a real preponderance of space-enabled applications. I also hope that the UK will have become a force in small satellite launch,” he says.
“In 10 years’ time we’ll be expecting to see Sabre in use, enabling cheaper satellite launch and, potentially, space tourism of the sort that Sir Richard Branson is looking at. We’ll also be close to 2030, by which time we should have seen a trebling in the size of the UK space economy. There will be a far greater likelihood that you’ll know someone working in the space sector or even be doing so yourself.”
He continues: “In 20 years’ time we could well have hypersonic [Mach 5] travel around the world. When I was a kid in the early 1970s, PG Tips used to produce collectible cards and had one series that was all about the space race. Its last three cards predicted things that would happen in the future, one of which was hypersonic travel. That still hasn’t happened after 40 years, but I think Sabre could open the door to it.”
Clearly passionate about his subject, Turnock makes no apology for using cosmic analogies when it comes to sharing his thoughts on what makes good leadership.
“Reach for the stars – setting ambitious targets is motivational. It unlocks people’s creativity and makes them feel part of something that would be amazing if the team pulls it off,” he says, adding with a smile:
“The second thing is lead like a satellite. What does that mean? Well, satellites do three things: they help you get to your destination, understand your environment and communicate. A good leader should do all three of those things.”
When asked which space project inspires him the most, his thoughts return once more to the red planet.
“There’s a potential project to bring a sample of rock back from Mars. That’s immensely challenging, because you have to send out a rover, dig for samples, launch them into space, collect them and go back to the Earth with them, all robotically,” he says.
“That’s an incredibly exciting project, which the UK is well placed to be a big part of. For me, simply being involved in such projects is absolutely the best bit of the job.”
UK Space Agency: Vital info
Organisation The UK Space Agency, an executive agency of the government’s Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy
Chief executive Graham Turnock – a PhD in particle physics from Cambridge – took up the role in March 2017. He was formerly chief executive of the Better Regulation Executive. Turnock is also a trustee of the Youth Hostels Association
Employees 120, based in London, Oxford and Swindon
Function Responsible for all strategic decisions concerning the nation’s civil space programme. Provides “a clear, single voice for UK space ambitions”
Target To capture 10 per cent of the global space market by 2030
Progress The Size & Health of the UK Space Industry report (December 2016) showed that the sector’s turnover had more than doubled in a decade, rising from £6.3bn in 2004-05 to £13.7bn in 2014-15 – equivalent to 6.5 per cent of the global space economy