It is not often you hear UK manufacturers singing the government’s praises but, when science minister Ian Pearson launched the new civil space strategy last month, few were more delighted than Colin Paynter, managing director of the UK’s largest space company, EADS Astrium.
For Paynter the strategy — drawn up to help the UK win an increasing share of the global market in space technology — represents a welcome vote of confidence in an industry that punches well above its weight, employing some of our most skilled engineers and scientists, and contributing about £7bn a year to the economy.
As one of the world’s leading developers of satellite payloads for the telecoms, defence and environmental sectors, Stevenage-based Astrium is undoubtedly significant to this success.
Yet despite this, Paynter, an amiable veteran of the defence, aerospace and communications industries, suggested the common perception of space science as an inspirational, but other-worldly pursuit, means the UK space industry does not always get the credit it deserves.
‘From GPS applications, to the huge volume of communications traffic and the growing importance of satellite technology for environmental monitoring, the sector has a very wide impact on society in an unsung way. People don’t recognise that much of the technology behind everyday things they do has a satellite behind it.’
Another inaccurate assumption, he claimed, is that space science is all paid for by the government and does not contribute greatly to the economy. In fact, the reverse is true.
‘People tend to think that space is a big government-funded process but actually the government represents only 20-25 per cent of the turnover as a customer. The rest is commercial. What we’re looking for from the government — and this comes out really strongly in the space strategy — is a recognition that it has a role in pushing the technology forward, through seed-corn investment, because of the tremendous return it can make to the economy.’
Paynter also welcomes the strategy as a statement of government intent to win an increasing share of the global market in space systems. ‘I think it’s tremendously important that it’s putting out a message saying this is an important area for us. It’s a growing area in the world economy — innovative, based on knowledge, and something the government has been pushing for a long time.’
But while the politicians certainly appear to be making all the right noises, the strategy has been launched in advance of any concrete financial commitment. The government gets its first opportunity to deliver on its pledges later this year at ESA’s ministerial conference, when Europe’s science ministers meet to agree a programme of research projects for the next three to five years.
In the meantime, Astrium is pushing ahead with some big projects. One is Alphasat, part of an ESAinitiative to develop a giant telecoms satellite to provide Broadband Global Area Network (BGAN) services over Europe, the middle east and Africa.
The body of the 6,000kg satellite —scheduled for completion in 2012 — is being built by international telecoms firm Inmarsat. Astrium is developing the payload, a highly sophisticated digital signal processor that will act as the brains of the system, effortlessly handling voice, data, and IP services.
It is designed to last 15 years, illustrating one of the technical conundrums of the space industry, namely that while businesses that depend on satellites are evolving rapidly the satellites, once in orbit, are not easily updated.
Solving this problem, said Paynter, is one of the big technical challenges the industry faces. ‘We’re trying to match a satellite to a customer’s business case and if the satellite lasts 15 years the customer can’t be knowledgeable about what his business case might be in 15 years time,’ he said. ‘We’re therefore trying to build in flexibility so that we can alter and adapt the characteristics of a payload to a situation the customer finds himself in — developing much more generic payloads that can be programmable over time.’
The Alphasat project is also a fine example of government collaboration in action, said Paynter. ‘We were able to convince the government and the south-east, London and east of England regional development agencies (RDAs) that this was a valuable science and technology development and they were able to put some money into the programme. We matched that funding and are now developing a range of new technologies. It’s a tremendous project that has private capital, research and technology money from us and seed-corn investment from the RDAs, all brought together to produce something for the UK that’s really significant.’
Away from the telecoms business, the increasing use of satellite technology for navigation and positioning is also an important area for Astrium.
The firm is heavily involved in Galileo, Europe’s answer to America’s GPS system. It has developed the payload for the system’s second test satellite Giove-B, which is scheduled for launch later next month, and is also developing the ground control system for the major Galileo constellation.
Despite the widely reported political and funding problems that have threatened to derail the project, Paynter remains optimistic about its chances of success. ‘I think the long-term aims of the programme and the benefits for the European economy and the citizens of Europe still remain,’ he said.
The company is also keen on environmental monitoring programmes. For instance, Astrium is the prime contractor for ESA’s ADM-Aeolus project, which is developing a satellite that will use high-powered UV lasers to provide detailed surveillance of the earth’s wind patterns from space. Paynter said the system, scheduled for launch this year, should lead to major improvements in weather forecasting.
Building on this side of the business, Paynter is keen to see the government get behind another European Earth-monitoring programme known as GMES (Global Monitoring and Environmental Security programme).
‘This is a really important initiative to monitor the earth using a series of satellites over the next decade to identify the effects of global warming and also to start a consistent measurement of whether steps we are taking are having the desired effect.’
Although the UK is a low-level sponsor of this project, Paynter hopes the government will step up its investment at November’s ministerial conference. ‘If the UK really wants to put itself forward in leading the climate change effort, this is a programme that sits at the heart of that policy.’
Though Paynter is keen to emphasise space science’s application to down-to-earth activities, Astrium is no stranger to the most glamorous end of the space industry — exploration. It is engaged on the development of the Rover that will be used by the ExoMars mission to study the red planet’s environment.
Paynter said the new system, operating with a greater degree of autonomy than previous systems, should be able to find out much more about the Martian environment. ‘It will take decisions by itself based on what it can see and sense and be able to manoeuvre around objects with only limited input from earth. It should be able to cover greater distances and be able to explore more interesting areas.’
Inspirational stuff. But what are the chances of one day seeing the even more inspirational sight of a manned British rocket taking off for Mars? Pretty slim, said Paynter, who believes that it is in the field of robotics that the UK stands to make its biggest contribution.
‘There’s nothing more inspirational than seeing a man in space, but the economics of that is enormous and, in terms of the scientific and research value of looking at other planets and star systems, a huge amount of that can be done remotely using robotics and spacecraft with the appropriate cameras and scientific instruments.
‘It’s a policy issue, not really a technology issue and we will respond to government policy but the government can’t attempt to do manned space exploration with anything anywhere near existing budget levels.’