Friday, 21 June 2024

UK space is down to earth

Britain’s space industry has more than doubled its turnover over in the past decade to £11.8 billion a year and is ‘punching above its weight’ in the international marketplace.

Companies involved in the manufacturing of satellites, providing communications, broadcasting services and finding practical applications for data produced from space vehicles have delivered an average annual growth in turnover of 8.8 per cent since 2000.

The findings come in a new report, The Case for Space, published this week at the UK Space Conference in Liverpool. Produced for the Satellite Applications Catapult, Innovate UK, UKspace and the UK Space Agency, it examines the economic impact of Britain’s space industry.

The study, by London Economics, highlights the impact the industry has on everyday life in the country and reveals that 37,000 people are directly employed by Britain’s space companies.

“The space industry is largely misunderstood by the public,” Andy Green, co-chair of Britain’s Space Leadership Council, told more than 1000 delegates. “The future for Britain’s space industry is not about huge fireworks that cost tons of money into space. We’re looking at smaller, cheaper investments that will provide returns.

“That’s why we’re so encouraged about the government supporting a British spaceport. That’s basically just a very long runway but it means we can use aircraft to launch smaller satellites at a much lower cost than rockets.”

Spaceplanes and the progress towards a British spaceport were the subject of a special session on the second day of the conference, which included a presentation by Virgin Galactic’s CEO George Whitesides.

Mr Green, formerly Logica’s chief executive and now chairman of IG Group, said satellites touched people’s every day lives and this is the area where Britain’s space industry is making its mark.

“Space is really about down to earth applications, whether it’s navigation for cars or ships, images that can help with weather forecasting and agriculture, satellite broadband from rural areas or TV broadcasting,” he said.

Much of the data for these services is provided by a new generation of cheaper and smaller satellites – each about the size of a washing machine – which are the product of a British concept and have been pioneered by Guildford-based Surrey Satellites Technology.

“The UK’s space companies have made some clever investments that may not have seemed as glamorous as rocket launches but are paying off,” said Green.

According to the report, the UK has only a small part of the global space industry’s upstream business – like the manufacture of space vehicles at 1.8 per cent of the market – whereas it is disproportionately well represented in the down stream sector.

Britain’s space companies have just over 11 per cent of the operations market for space vehicles, and 10.3 per cent of the applications market for the services and data provided by satellites.

Overall this means the UK has 6.3 per cent and 7.7 percent of the global space industry’s annual turnover, which is estimated at about £160 billion a year.

The industry is targeting an annual turnover of £40 billion by 2030, a figure which the report describes as ‘feasible’ whilst at the same time warning government policy support would be needed.

It also comments on the relatively low level of financial support for space – the UK government spent 0.015 per cent of GDP on space in 2013, putting Britain in the bottom third of spending compared to other OECD nations – which could be a threat to hitting the target.

As well as direct financial benefits from the space, the research and development in the sector also provides technology and economic “spillover”, according Steve Smart, chairman of trade association UKspace.

Technology benefits from this include metals developed for space vehicles that have been used in medical applications and satellite scanning systems that have found uses in security scanners at airports.

Mr Smart added: “The economic benefits to adjacent sectors are very important to the business case. Our infrastructure can be made much more efficient by monitoring roads, rail and ships from space to we can better utilise the capacity.”

Benefits to society include safety, such as flood warnings from analysing weather data from satellites, and managing farming production to make it more efficient.

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