Career opportunities in the UK space sector

Already worth £2.9 billion, the UK’s space sector is growing fast and offers engineers a host of exciting opportunities. George Coupe reports

The announcement late last month that the Chancellor, George Osborne, is planning to put a chunk of the country’s meagre resources for capital expenditure behind a British project to develop a revolutionary jet engine for a reusable space plane, suggests the government has high hopes of the space engineering sector.


Just how much cash is to go to the Skylon project, run by Reaction Engines Ltd in Oxfordshire, has not been revealed, but the news is a sign that things are changing in the British space industry. 

After years of sitting on the sidelines, as others joined the space race, Britain is now preparing for a period of massive growth in the space sector. Why? Gone are the days when space was just about moonshots and national pride; today the market for advanced space technologies and applications is global and growing, and Britain wants to increase its share, from six per cent to 10 per cent by 2030; the mission is nothing less than the rebalancing of British economy itself.

Space is a “rapidly growing global market”, said David Willetts, the universities and science minister, last month, “and we want a larger part of it”.  Bold steps have already been taken. The government has said it will increase its investment in the European space programme to £240million per year for the next five years, including a £16million contribution to the International Space Station.The first British astronaut for more than 20 years, Major Tim Peake, is preparing for launch in 2015, and all this, says the government, will hopefully result in orders of up to £1billion per year for the British space industry. 

Whitehall is hoping for an “Apollo effect”, like that seen in the US after the moon landings in the 1960s, that would inspire youngsters to study science and engineering and give a much need boost the economy.

A vain hope? At present the sector is worth £9.2bn and employs 30,000 people. As well as the larger companies who manufacture and operate satellites, such as Inmarsat and Astrium, a European business with a base in the UK, the sector is made up of many smaller businesses that specialise in low cost satellite platforms and subsystems. The sector grew by eight per cent a year between 2008 and 2011, with strong exports of satellite-based tools to the developing world. British advances in satellite radar, space software, small satellites and military communications are thought to represent huge export opportunities in the coming years. 

The SABRE engine
The SABRE engine is undergoing testing

The UK Space Agency expects that growth should result in up to 100,000 new jobs. It’s the breadth of the UK’s involvement in space technology, from ground-based applications (downstream) to the space-based platforms themselves (upstream) that is the key, said Prof Richard Crowther, Chief Engineer at the UK Space Agency.

‘The UK has demonstrated particular strength in developing downstream applications derived from space-based systems, but the UK is also a world leader in platform technologies and payloads, most notably in the area of communications, but across the board as exemplified by SSTL (Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd) and its growing range of satellites serving earth observation, communications, and position, navigation and timing using smaller, versatile and more responsive platforms.’

The decision to fund a British astronaut opens up yet another range of opportunities for companies who want to bid for contracts involving human space flight. Without this national contribution, British companies have historically been ruled out of that part of the market. But Britain would have plenty of related experience to draw on in this field, said Prof Crowther.

“Emerging programmes such as the Skylon reusable space plane also present opportunities for the UK to span the range of engineering disciplines from aerospace to space,” he said.

The Chancellor’s interest in Skylon centres on the hybrid air-breathing rocket engine, known as SABRE, which would power it into orbit in a single stage. The engine relies on an entirely new pre-cooling technology that allows it to function at extremely high speeds, at plus Mach 5. The project has no competitor. If successful it would offer a uniquely lightweight and therefore more affordable means of reaching space. It has already completed a series of tests and the next stage is to build a full-scale prototype. 

So how will all these developments drive the skills requirements of the sector? ‘You do not have to be a rocket scientist to work in the space field,’ said Prof Crowther. Indeed, it is all about the “payload”; the huge variety of functions of the technology that is being carried into space means an equally broad range of skills is in demand.

‘Mechanical, electronics, electrical engineers are much in demand but so also are the specialists associated with the payloads, for example climate scientists, geologists, geographers etc. There is always demand for engineers with a practical and pragmatic approach to the range of challenges we encounter in the space field.’

The ability to innovate and think creatively within the harsh environmental constraints of space and the limitations of cost, weight and volume within the space rocket, is extremely important. The emergence of the  CubeSat design standard for small, low-cost satellites has proved very popular, and the UK space sector now offers a wide range of components and tools that can be carried on these types of platforms.

Robin Sampson, spacecraft sales manager at Clyde Space, in Glasgow, a supplier of small and nano-satellite platforms, and off-the shelf subsystems for CubeSats, said their order books were very healthy.   

‘We’re increasing new versions of our flagship power systems making them ever more capable, and have launched a range of RF communication systems for CubeSats, too.’

He said the company was also working on on a new electric propulsion device for small satellites, which involves high voltage analogue circuit design. Other new products include the Aerodynamic End of Life De-orbit System which is being co-developed with the University of Glasgow. ‘It’s our answer to the space-junk problem, and requires some complicated deployment mechanics – a key strategic area for further development of small satellites, and indeed any satellite platform.’

The government is investing money in the UK's Skylon space plane
The government is investing money in the UK’s Skylon space plane

Sampson agreed that it was a priority for engineering companies working in the industry to retain a broad mix of skills. 

‘At Clyde Space we encourage each of our staff to be able to look at problems ‘in the round’ and it’s important to us that, whilst each member of our engineering team most certainly has their specialisms; for example in analogue or digital circuit design, mechanical design, testing and manufacture – each are able to take a rounded approach and view spacecraft systems in context. Systems engineering, as with most other engineering applications, is the bedrock of small satellite design and manufacture.’

Away from the cleanroom, added Sampson, there is a need for engineers to possess the general skills required by any company competing in a global market. 

‘We need effective and enthusiastic communicators. We need our senior engineers and management team to not only adopt a flexible approach to customers’ technical requirements, but we also know that our customers need and expect maximum transparency from us. If we are to grow the UK space industry the way we all hope to, we can’t afford to overlook the ‘softer side’ of the business too.’

As ever, with growth comes the problem of finding enough people with the right qualifications. Jeremy Curtis, Head of Education, and the UK Space Agency said that while manufacturers and operators of spacecraft generally don’t find it difficult to attract the right candidates, businesses downstream, involved in ground-based applications, can find it more difficult.

‘Upstream companies are generally looking for a good first degree in a STEM subject, for example maths, engineering, particularly mechanical or electronic, computer science or physics, with a more specialised masters degree.  

‘Downstream organisations, which cover almost the full range of industry sectors from agriculture to telecommunications, frequently look for a more diverse skill set, often similarly in the physical sciences, maths and engineering, but also in earth, marine and environmental sciences, increasingly with the additional need for strong quantitative skills, which many of the environmental science and geography graduates lack.  

‘Many employers want a good first degree supported by a more specialist masters qualification to give the student more of an insight into the particular sector they aim to enter.’

The government has sought to improve the situation by funding 500 masters level degree places in aerospace engineering over the next three years. The places will be jointly funded with industry, with the government committing £3million. 

(More information on the bursary scheme is available on the Royal Academy of Engineering and the Royal Aeronautical Society websites.)