Virgin Galactic isn’t the future of the UK space industry

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Space Innovation and Growth Strategy 2014-2030 - .PDF file.

Senior reporter

A space port would be fantastic for the British economy but not because of Richard Branson’s tourism venture.

The common conception of the commercial space industry is of companies run by charismatic, ambitious billionaires carrying out launches on NASA’s behalf or running an attention-grabbing tourist flight or Mars-colonising service. But while the likes of Space X and Virgin Galactic generate the headlines, a much larger industry is operating quietly in the background and with a much more important role in most people’s lives.

Despite not having a prominent national science and exploration programme, Britain already punches above its weight when it comes to the space industry, largely thanks to its capabilities in building satellites, the technology infrastructure that underpins a huge amount of modern life. The UK space industry has double the country’s average global market share (6 per cent compared to 3 per cent) and is one of the few sectors to have enjoyed strong growth throughout the recent recession. And all this without most British people probably realising the country even has a space industry.

But with the likes of China announcing their goals to take a higher share of the rapidly growing space market, the UK needs to step up its efforts if it wants to increase or even maintain its strength in the sector. The government goal for the last three years has been to reach 10 per cent share by 2030, and a new report calls for an interim target of 8 per cent by the end of the decade.

If we’re going to reach these goals then the UK space industry will need to become much more prominent. France, Germany and to a lesser extent Italy are the big players in the European Space Agency (ESA) and Britain is already beginning to step up and take part in more international missions, including the manned spaceflight programme.

What might be even better for our brand is the creation of a British space port, and David Willetts, the minister responsible for space policy, yesterday signalled that he supported the UK Space Leadership Council’s report that recommended establishing such a facility by 2018. He also suggested such a port could become the European home to Virgin Galactic, which plans to launch its first flight next year from New Mexico in the US. And if Reaction Engines’ proposals for a “Skylon” space plane ever come to fruition, that too could be based at a UK launch site.

But a closer reading of the new report suggests that the most important future developments for Britain’s space industry will be in the satellite sector that has already become a quiet success story. Commercial suborbital space flight is projected to generate between $600m and $1.6bn over the next 10 years. The market for satellites just in the communications sector is expected to be worth $52.7bn.

Satellites were one of the “Eight Great Technologies” identified earlier this year by Willetts as a priority for government support. And one of the nine new “Catapult” technology centres is devoted to satellite applications that could transform other industries as well as expanding demand for the space market (though not, perhaps disappointingly, to developing a catapult launch system).

The Catapult is already helping UK businesses generate new ways (and creating new firms) to use the huge amount of satellite information we can now access. For example, a recent “hackathon”, in which experts in satellite data and computer programming came together to produce ideas for tackling specific problems suggested by various industries, produced an app that will secure imports of coffee from Rwanda by helping farmers access weather data and plan and coordinate their harvests. Another “inventathon” focusing on satellite and groundstation hardware developed a solution to the nuclear industry’s problem of jellyfish blooms damaging and shutting down power stations through their water inlets.

A spaceport that brought the world’s eyes to the UK would be a welcome addition to our infrastructure. But more importantly it would provide greater access to space at a time when availability of cheap Eastern European launch vehicles is shrinking, potentially increasing the number of low-cost satellites we can launch and opening use of satellite data to a whole new audience. It might not be as glamorous as sending Lady Gaga into space, but ultimately it will be a lot more useful and probably far more profitable.