According to a new report, Britain’s space sector – and the many SMEs within it – need to take action in order to avoid losing business to overseas firms.
On 15 December, Timothy Peake will launch into orbit, becoming the first British astronaut to venture into space in two decades. Set to take off from Baikonur, Kazakhstan, on board a Russian Soyuz spacecraft, Peake will live in the International Space Station for six months.
But while Peake’s journey marks a return to space for Britain, a new report from the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE) has found that the UK economy could miss out on billions if it fails to embrace the growing global space market.
The report, called ‘Seeking Resolution: Growing the UK Small Satellite Industry’, focuses on the emerging small satellite sector, which IMechE says is being impeded by outdated licence regimes and expensive third-party liability insurance.
Dr Helen Meese, head of engineering in society at the IMechE, said: “Small satellites are not only transforming sectors such as agriculture, conservation, energy production and disaster relief, but also have the potential to be a huge business opportunity for the UK.
The UK has the potential to build a £40bn space industry by 2030, supporting an extra 100,000 jobs, but work needs to be done to simplify regulation and boost the number of people entering the space industry or we risk losing business overseas.”
EO and SMEs
As a whole, the UK space industry includes everything from satellite manufacturing and production to providing communications, broadcasting services and data analysis from space vehicles. According to figures from research practice London Economics, more than 37,000 people are directly employed by UK space companies, and the sector has more than doubled its turnover over the last decade, to £11.8bn a year.
Primarily run by SMEs, the UK space industry is driven by space applications such as direct-to-home satellites, space operations such as launch provision and brokerage services, and space manufacturing, including the production of launch vehicles and systems and satellites.
While broadcasting services currently lead the UK space market, trends towards small and micro satellites, like those used to perform earth observation (EO) tasks, suggest there could be significant room for the market to expand.
Used to gather information about Earth’s physical, chemical and biological systems, data from EO has far-reaching applications, from the potential to “show the spread of air pollution across a continent, the precise damage done in a region struck by an earthquake or forest fires, or the entire span of a 500km hurricane from the calmness of its eye to its outermost storm fronts,” according to the European Space Agency (ESA). Long-term observation can be used to monitor environmental changes over time, such as ozone layer depletion and sea level rise, which, writes the ESA, “will enable a reliable assessment of the global impact of human activity and the likely future extent of climate change”.
More than 6,600 satellites have been launched since 1957, and IMechE reports that “the global market for selling EO data is expected to reach a value of £1.8bn by 2020 based on developing new technologies and big data analytics”.
Maximising growth potential
In order for the UK to maximise the growth potential of the UK space industry, IMechE offers a number of recommendations. First, the institution has called upon the UK Space Agency to set up a satellite advisory team to aid in simplifying the licensing regime. It has increased the amount of money made available to SMEs through the Satellite Finance Network from £20m to £70m over the next five years, and has encouraged the Satellite Applications Catapult and research councils to work with universities to attract talent into the sector.
The UK has the potential to build a £40bn space industry by 2030, supporting an extra 100,000 jobs, but work needs to be done to simplify regulation and boost the number of people entering the space industry or we risk losing business overseas.