Space industry key to UK economy

The UK economy risks losing more manufacturing business overseas if it does not seize opportunities in the space industry.

This was the stark picture painted by Logica chief executive Andy Green yesterday in statements following the unveiling of a new report highlighting ways in which the UK could expand its stake in the global space market from six to 10 per cent.

The report was produced by the government and industry-led Space Innovation and Growth Team (Space IGT). Green, who chaired Space IGT, argued government and industry should put greater focus into building up the UK’s space industry because it involves high-value manufacturing using advanced production techniques that are difficult to replicate in low-wage economies abroad.

According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the UK ranks 21st in terms of national space investment, with France, Germany and Italy in the top 10.

The Space IGT report claimed that doubling the national commitment would move the country to 10th position relative to GDP invested in space. Specifically, it suggested doubling national funding for space projects to £550m per year by 2020.

If this funding is provided, the Space IGT report projected the domestic space industry could be worth £40bn per year by 2030, and provide approximately 100,000 new jobs.

Space IGT stressed that financial support for the UK’s space industry would need to come from the private and public sector. It suggested that industry and government should contribute equally to a national R&D programme for space, funding £20m in 2011 and £100m in 2015.

Earth Observation

Space IGT called for the development of the UK’s own Earth Observation service via a privately funded initiative.

Bob Cockshott, director of the Digital Systems Knowledge Transfer Network and a member of the Space IGT working group, said further development of Earth Observation could lead to satellite images with improved detail and possibly real-time transmission.

In the last decade, the global space sector has grown by around nine per cent per year

He envisioned this could be useful for not only mitigating but possibly preventing major disasters such as flooding or widespread forest fires. Cockshott said the latter would be possible using detailed thermal imagery to identify hot spots. He also predicted that improved Earth Observation will enhance detection of the effects climate change has on the planet.

The Space IGT report also looked into the further exploitation of satellites for high-speed internet broadband. Cockshott told The Engineer Online that this could have big implications for the UK.

‘Places such as remote parts of Scotland are very expensive to reach by fibre-optic cables,’ he added. ‘Satellite has a role in perhaps democratising access to high-speed broadband, so somebody on the Isle of Skye can have an equivalent connection to someone in the centre of London.’

Satellite broadband is also expected to be a more environmentally friendly way to deliver the internet. According to the findings of Space IGT, broadband more reliant on satellite infrastructure, rather than terrestrial infrastructure, could save 40 million tonnes of carbon dioxide savings per annum.

Cockshott also envisioned satellites will be used more in the future for broadcasting high-definition and possibly even 3D television.

Recession proof

The most convincing argument for supporting the UK space industry, Cockshott said, is that it is recession proof. He pointed out that the global space sector has grown at about nine per cent per year over the past 10 years.

Some satellite companies in the UK have fared even better. Surrey Satellite Technology (SSTL), based in Guildford, has achieved a 20 per cent increase per year over the last 10 years, and much of the growth was fuelled by exports.

In a supporting statement following the unveiling of the Space IGT report, SSTL claimed that it benefited greatly from earlier UK government initiatives such as MOSAIC, which led to the creation of the international Disaster Monitoring Constellation and the RapidEye, the world’s first commercial small satellite Earth observation system.

The MOSAIC investment in SSTL has to date led to more than £100m of export orders – a return of 10 to one for the UK.

It was also announced last month that SSTL and its German partner OHB System won a contract to build 14 satellites for the Galileo navigation system, Europe’s equivalent to the US-run Global Positioning System (GPS).

Space IGT has appointed the UK’s space agency, which was announced in December, to push through its recommendations. The drafters of the report also laid out plans for a Space Leadership Council, jointly chaired by the business, innovation and skills secretary and the president of the UKspace trade association, to oversee progress.