Above: NovaSAR-S (Synthetic Aperture Radar platform) on test in EMC chamber Credit: Airbus Defence and Space
The UK’s space industry is a big hitter in small satellites and niche projects, supplying advanced equipment to NASA, the ESA and other space agencies and businesses. by Malcolm Wheatley
In July 2015, NASA’s New Horizons space probe swept by Pluto, sending back stunning close-up images of its jagged mountain ranges and desolate plains—after which the spacecraft was set on course for a flyby of MU69, an ancient asteroid that had not even been discovered when New Horizons blasted off from Cape Canaveral back in 2006.
Nor is America’s NASA the only space agency generating headlines with startling images of far-away space objects. Launched in 2004, the European Space Agency’s Rosetta probe intercepted comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko in August 2014, its lander module Philae touching down on the comet while Rosetta orbited it.
Central to both missions success was the role played by Britain’s space industry, which contributes £9.1 billion a year to the UK economy and directly employs 37,000 people. Growing at between 7‑10% a year, government plans published in 2014 envisage the industry tripling in size over the next 20 years, with the strategy calling for the sector to make up 10% of the global space market by 2030.
Nor is this fanciful: space, for once, appears to be an area of economic activity where joined-up thinking and joined-up government undoubtedly combine. From the Government’s National Space Policy, to the UK Space Agency’s Corporate Plan and work undertaken by the Satellite Applications Catapult and Innovate UK, there’s an evident determination for the UK to play a full part in a global space market that is forecast to be worth £400 billion by 2030. As recently as July, the government announced a £100m package of investment that includes creating a National Satellite Testing Facility on the Harwell space campus in Oxfordshire, and a new National Space Propulsion Facility to develop and test space engines at Wescott Venture Park in Buckinghamshire.
What’s next? Developing the UK as a commercial launch market, by passing legislation and creating a regulatory framework so as to enable UK-based commercial launch firms to compete with America’s SpaceX and Blue Origin. A UK Space Agency roadshow toured the UK in the autumn, with a decision by the Agency on which specific proposals to take forward expected in early 2018.
That said, while space missions continue to garner headlines, the companies making up the UK’s space sector don’t have the same high profile—something that will need to change if government ambitions to see the UK at the forefront of the commercialisation of space are to come to fruition.
Few of the general public, for instance, seem aware of Guildford-based Surrey Satellite Technology Limited. A spin-off from the University of Surrey, it has built and launched 50 satellites since being founded over 30 years ago. It employs 500 people and has a 40% share of the global small satellite market. It is now majority-owned by Airbus Group—itself a major player in the sector, in the form of Stevenage-based Airbus Defence and Space, which designs and manufactures satellites for telecommunications, earth observation, navigation, and science programmes, as well as constructing deep space probes such as Rosetta.
Thales Alenia Space UK signed, in November, a contract with the UK Space Agency to work on MicroCarb, a joint UK‑French satellite mission intended to measure sources and sinks of carbon, the main greenhouse gas that drives global warming. Franco-Italian parent company Thales Alenia Space, meanwhile, builds the cargo modules for the Cygnus unmanned cargo missions to the International Space Station.
Yet possibly one of the lowest profile players in the sector is the one with the longest heritage; Chelmsford-based e2v, its name a nod to its original roots as English Electric Valves. Acquired in March 2017 by United States conglomerate Teledyne Technologies, Teledyne e2v’s imaging technology provides the crucial multi-spectrum ‘cameras’ on board missions such as NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope and Kepler missions, the Mars Reconnaissance Rover, and the European Space Agency’s GAIA mission. More recently, e2v’s imaging sensors flew on NASA’s New Horizons probe to Pluto, and on the European Space Agency’s Rosetta probe to comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko.
“If you’ve seen a photo from New Horizons or Rosetta, then you’ve seen a photo taken by one of our imaging systems,” says Paul Jerram, Teledyne e2v’s Chief Engineer for Space Imaging operations. “We’ve flown on most of the missions that have generated the most interesting science stories over the last few years.”
Engines of difference – and of growth
The mood in the sector is buoyant, with the UK Space Agency—an organisation which barely existed a decade back—now making a real difference.
“The atmosphere is very positive, very bullish—and here at e2v, we share that sense, and have grown significantly,” Jerram affirms. “Even in a relatively niche sector such as space imaging, we have twice as many people as ten years ago. And with launch costs falling, and private companies getting into space, we expect that to continue.”
Venture capital, too, is getting the UK space bug. London-based Seraphim Capital, headed by chief executive Mark Boggett, reckons to be the world’s first venture fund dedicated to financing the growth of companies operating in the space and near space sector—and counts established players such as Surrey Satellite Technology, Airbus, and Teledyne among its corps of investors, as well as the British Business Bank.
Low-orbit weather and tracking satellite company Spire Global is one such Seraphim investment: the company is San Francisco-headquartered but the satellites are built at its Glasgow facility. Satellite imaging company ICEYE, another investment, is Finnish—but key elements of the data analytics capabilities are UK-based.
“We’re very bullish about the UK space sector,” sums up Boggett. “Globally, the industry has a significant bias to the United States but there’s an opportunity for Europe and the UK to redress that. What’s holding things back is access to risk capital—which is where we come in.”
Malcolm Wheatley is anexperienced writer and editorwho covers subjects includinginformation technology, enterprisesoftware, engineering, Big Dataand the Internet of Things.He is a visiting fellow ofCranfield University