Space industry prepares for lift-off

Leading the European race to launch satellites into space will bring great social, cultural and economic benefits to the UK.

The UK is making great strides with plans to launch satellites from its soil.

Later this year, we should see a vertical launch from the Saxavord spaceport in Shetland and another attempt at a plane launch from Cornwall using the Virgin Orbit Boeing 747-400 ‘Cosmic Girl’.

These launches and spaceports planned for the UK are part of the government’s national space strategy, which sets out how the UK will become the first European country to launch satellites into orbit from Europe.

Space is a thriving sector

In November, the UK Space Agency confirmed a further investment of £1.84 billion, in partnership with the European Space Agency.

There is funding for a range of programmes, from space sustainability to supporting the UK-built Rosalind Franklin Mars rover and supporting the Earth observation sector.

The UK’s National Satellite Test Facility being built at Science and Technology Facilities Council’s (STFC) Rutherford Appleton Laboratory (RAL) space should be operational in the next 12 months, and commercial companies, large and small, are supporting this thriving technology sector.

Why is this important?

I began my career in the space industry and see the significance of the UK having its own sovereign launch capability.

Space technology already plays a pivotal role in life on Earth, both economic and cultural.

We rely on satellites for communications, navigation and even for financial transactions, while observing the Earth from space is essential for managing our environment.

The UK space technology sector is also contributing support and expertise for future missions to the Moon and Mars, which will offer further benefits for the UK economy.

Satellites are becoming smaller, cheaper and more capable as the technology improves.

It means the range of applications and their impact is progressively multiplying. The UK must exploit this to be competitive in the world economy.

The ability to launch our own satellites is a major advantage. It gives us control and flexibility, and reduces costs.

Space impacts our everyday lives

Space is no longer the preserve of science, or global politics, important as they remain, but something that impacts all our lives.

We need to view space in the same way that we view things that impact everyday activities on Earth, such as our road and rail networks or other infrastructure.

The ability of satellites to provide services, such as precision navigation or universal digital communications, is already transforming our way of life and our working practices, and this will grow in the future.

We will see it in the development of autonomous vehicles, for example, the Darwin autonomous shuttle, or in telemedicine for remote care applications, for example, use of satellite technology and artificial intelligence to detect bowel cancer. These create business opportunities and improve quality of life.

We have only scratched the surface

We have but scratched the surface in terms of using satellites to monitor and maintain our environment, particularly in dealing with the effects of climate change.

Instruments are becoming ever more powerful and effective and cheaper to deploy.

This creates the opportunity to develop satellite applications that are targeted at the needs of a particular region, or industry, or problem, creating new services that benefit both the community and the economy.

And it’s not just the services that satellites enable.

We can discover and make new products in space

The microgravity environment in space has major potential for drug development, understanding human conditions, such as the effects of ageing, and manufacturing novel, high-value materials, free from convection or sedimentation that are inevitable in the gravity on Earth’s surface.

A good example is the Innovate UK-funded Welsh start-up Space Forge, which is seeking to open a lucrative new market by flying a test demonstrator for space manufacturing on an early UK launch.

Space is also a powerful fount of inspiration. The discoveries we have made through spaceflight are mind-boggling. Take, for example, the recent images from the James Webb Space Telescope (the development of one of its 3 instruments was led by STFC’s Royal Observatory Edinburgh and tested and developed by STFC’s RAL Space facility).

The benefits of fundamental knowledge should never be underestimated, both from a cultural perspective and from the often unexpected economic and societal opportunities it creates and inspiration it gives individuals to push forward and exploit them.

Exploiting new opportunities

If the UK is to continue to play a significant role, we need to provide fertile ground for our people and industries to flourish.

UK government initiatives, through the UK Space Agency, to enable and encourage launches from our country are an excellent example.

We also play a major role at STFC, from funding fundamental research to providing cutting-edge facilities, such as the new National Satellite Test Facility at Harwell, and accelerating the commercialisation of new ideas through our multidisciplinary clusters and wider UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) links.

This multidisciplinary approach is characteristic of the space sector and is increasingly being adopted across many fields as we break down traditional silos and develop a modern knowledge economy.

Developing innovation clusters

I am responsible for developing innovation clusters in a variety of disciplines at our campuses at Harwell and Daresbury.

We have so far developed successful clusters in space, health, energy, digital and quantum technologies, all areas of high economic growth.

I have seen how these clusters help lift barriers into each other’s markets. Indeed, cross-cluster collaboration is allowing organisations to diversify their businesses and develop more innovative products more quickly, opening new supply chains.

This makes it much easier, for example, to explore ways to apply space technology to the health or energy sectors, or vice versa (for example, SiHealth at Harwell and Sunborne Systems are both supported by STFC’s cross-cluster proof of concept grant funding.

UKRI is ideally tailored to this multidisciplinary ethos. We have a broad spectrum of expertise to help us to boost innovation and commercialisation.

This includes expertise in social sciences, whose importance can often be overlooked. Understanding how and why people use (or do not use) new products and services is key to success.

Looking to the future

We must continue to look forward. Near-Earth space is now truly opening up as a tool to benefit all mankind, but we are also on the brink of further human exploration of the Moon.

This will extend our horizons to space between Earth and the Moon and open fresh opportunities.

The UK must continue to invest and innovate to reap the benefits that will come. The forthcoming satellite launches from UK soil are just the most visible element.

Top image:  Credit: UKRI

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