Watch this space

With growing investment in space-related technology, engineers can look to good long-term prospects


Ask anyone about the space sector and they will no doubt mention the Apollo missions, Yuri Gagarin, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. But while manned exploration is now on ice, testing the limits of what engineering in space can do for mankind is an area that continues to thrive.

Within this development, a number of British companies are using the cosmos to build on and improve the everyday technologies we take for granted, such as digital television and satnav systems.

The British space sector employs more than 60,000 people and contributes about £7bn to the UK’s economy. In February Ian Pearson, science and innovation minister, announced the establishment of an international space facility at Harwell, Oxfordshire, which will focus on climate change, robotic space exploration and applications.

There will also be closer involvement in international initiatives on the future shape of space exploration to the moon, Mars and beyond, while a National Space Technology Programme will be established to support the development of innovative technologies and services.

All this suggests investment in space-related technology will continue at its current level, if not expand, allowing those working within this area the reassurance of good long-term prospects.

‘The industry has been doing very well over the last three years,’ said Prof Colin McInnes, director of research in the department of mechanical engineering at the University of Strathclyde.

‘The sector is a large employer and makes a big contribution to the UK’s economy — bigger than many people might expect. It doesn’t have the same profile as the aeronautical industry but there is a lot of activity. There are many British companies carrying out specialist work in the field of electronics and sensors, for instance. Start-ups such as Clyde Space are building CubeSats. Rather than buying space data, the low price of these allows companies to buy their own satellite instead. It could turn the space industry on its head, making it cheaper and more accessible. Work such as this is at the cutting edge of engineering.’

Largest of the UK’s space related employers is EADS Astrium, which will shortly be taking over its nearest competitor, Surrey Satellite Technology Limited or SSTL. It is hoped that by merging the companies, they will have the ability to bid for even larger contracts. ‘We are at a historic high with the number of people that we are recruiting,’ said Dr Mike Healy, director of earth observation, navigation and science. Both ourselves and Surrey Satellite Technology Limited are winning contracts.

‘However, we are struggling to find UK staff. We get really good graduates — we’ll be taking on about 50 this year — but we struggle with experienced staff. Although we have been recruiting from Spain, the US and Canada we would really like to find people at home, so we’re having a big push in the UK.’

The company is looking for 70 to 80 engineers and is interested in hearing from engineers in the defence and aerospace industries or telecoms as well as those with previous space-related experience.

‘We’re looking for a mix of electrical or electronics skills such as antenna design, and digital signal processing,’ he said.

‘We also need good-quality project managers, as well as people to do structural and propulsion work on the mechanical side. In order to design a satellite you must be able to understand solar arrays, power regulators, how to navigate a satellite and the sensors on it. Then there’s the propulsion that gets it there and the thermal design.

‘In short, we need people from all disciplines, and that’s before you get into the electronics and the payload work.’

Smaller companies are also looking for staff. ‘As always, we are actively recruiting,’ said Barbara Puddephatt, head of group recruitment at VEGA Group, which offers engineering and other support to the space industry.

‘This is across the spectrum. We are particularly looking for good systems engineers, as well as good spacecraft operators. We are particularly pleased that we have a high percentage of female engineers working for us.

‘I think potential recruits come to us as we have a good reputation for treating staff well — a good deal of our recruits come from recommendations by current staff.’

However, she notes that as well as cutting-edge skills, some older knowledge is also widely required. ‘With software engineers there’s a lot of requirement for those with C++ knowledge. We have to go back and train some people. If you have C++ you will be in demand.’

The work is fast moving, with projects bearing fruit within a short timeframe. ‘We offer our engineers the remarkable experience of working on projects that are designed, built and flown within 24 months,’ said Dr Matt Perkins, SSTL’s group chief executive officer.

The company is looking for engineers from various disciplines, both electronic and mechanical, with a background in the space industry. ‘From SSTL’s perspective, the current expansion is due to the range of work available that the British space industry can win through its key strengths in small satellites, robotics and telecommunications,’ he said.

‘There has clearly been an acceptance of small satellites as highly capable and a cost-effective option for accessing space, bringing its advantages closer to the users.

‘SSTL’s growth plans continue to build on this acceptance and are supported by the powerful demonstration of the utility of commercial off-the-shelf technology in the first Galileo satellite launched, GIOVE-A, manufactured by SSTL and now having its mission extended for a further 12 months.’

The work is varied and high-level, meaning pressure to develop a robust product is high. EADS Astrium has secured contracts to deliver 31 satellites in the last three years. Past work includes designing the first four satellites for the Galileo project. ‘Fifty to 60 per cent of what we do is telecoms work and 90 per cent of that is for export,’ EADS Astrium’s Healy said.

‘The rest of our work is institutional business in the observational and earth sciences sector. You can be working on anything from the satellites behind digital television to expeditions to Mercury. These are huge international projects involving proper engineering and real quality assurance — if something is spending eight years getting to Mercury it had better work when it gets there.’

Although Britain may not be at the forefront of sending a man to Mars, the achievements of engineers here have revolutionised how people go about their everyday business. Working within this sector offers not only the chance to work on technologies that affect all aspects of society and bring benefits to all but, through projects such as Galileo, will generate plenty of work in years to come.

‘While we may not have been involved in human space flight and the high-profile side of the industry, Britain’s strength lies in space engineering,’ said McInnes.

‘We have supported ESA’s scientific expeditions, and worked on the Galileo navigation program. Britain had a lot of input into the systems behind tracking systems and satnav. When people use this they don’t consider that behind the unit they buy from Currys are five or six satellites with atomic clocks in them created by engineers. Space services are vital to everyday technologies such as telecoms, satnavs — and even forecasting the weather.’

Julia Pierce