Willetts announces formal launch of UK Space Agency

The UK Space Agency (UKSA) has been formally launched as an executive agency of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills with an annual budget of £240m.

Making the announcement yesterday, science and universities minister David Willetts set out a strategy for the agency based on international co-operation, reduced regulatory burden and public spending to stimulate growth.

While £10m has been earmarked to start a national space technology programme, it follows an announcement by the French government last week pledging a package worth around €500m (£440m) to spur innovation and replace Ariane.

‘The British way of doing these things is going to be different from the continental model — we’ve by and large eschewed some of these really big projects. What we have got is a nimble industry that is very commercial, highly responsive, that doesn’t want the level of public involvement you get in some other countries,’ Willetts said.

Indeed, the UK’s private space industry is now estimated to be worth £7.5bn and has seen growth right through the recession, and Willetts said the government’s role should be to ’give a nudge’ to help business where necessary.

Part of this will be to rationalise the regulations surrounding space activity, which, according to Willetts, have grown up over the years without a coherent overview.

‘It would be great to see vehicles launched from the UK again; for example, it would be nice to see Virgin Galactic launch from Lossiemouth,’ he said.

‘We’re already talking to Virgin Galactic and it’s fair to say Richard Branson is pleased with this breakthrough. There should be no regulatory obstacles to his operating from the UK… But of course if he decides to do that it’s his own commercial decision.’

The new chief executive of UKSA, David Williams, also revealed that he has just signed a memorandum of understanding with the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), which follows similar co-operative deals with the Russian Space Forces and NASA. 

The Indian deal will see three key areas of collaboration in satellite technical demonstration using ISRO launch services, new commercial applications using space data and new climate change models using space data.

‘The first satellite is actually being built as we speak and meetings are being held this week. The issue is for India is has it got any payload to go on it, and we’ve got more than enough experiments to fly on this satellite,’ Williams said.

’The aim really is to get a quick way of testing things in space, so it’s not necessarily operational satellites. We can test fly instrumentation, make sure it’s working and see what the results look like, and when we move forward to operational satellites, we’ll be in a much better position.’