A year ago, the UK government launched its National Space Strategy – a document that, in the typical rhetoric of the Johnson era, saw the UK described as “galactic Britain”, partly on the back of its continued membership of the European Space Agency (ESA). (If anyone doubted it, the government’s own figures showed a return of roughly £10/$10 for every pound/dollar invested in ESA.)
As the Strategy explained to the kind of sceptics who tweet ‘Why are we bothering with space when people can’t afford to heat our houses?’ (an understandable perspective in troubled times):
Satellites and space activities deliver navigation, weather forecasting, power grid monitoring, financial transactions, and better public services. Satellites also support television services to millions of UK households as well as other digital communications.
The UK space sector is growing faster than the rest of the UK economy, and the average worker in the space sector is 2.6 times more productive than in other sectors. It is worth over £16.4 billion per year, employs over 45,000 people, and satellites underpin £360 billion per year of wider economic activity.
Got that? Since then, however, satellite vendor Inmarsat has published a 2022 report bemoaning people’s persistent lack of understanding about the benefits of space technology – business leaders among them. Satellites, and satellite services, communications, maintenance, and complex payloads are all key areas for the UK space economy.
Just before the Space Strategy was published last Autumn, another UK satellite and ‘space as a service’ company, Hampshire-headquartered In-Space Missions, was acquired by defence and aerospace giant BAE Systems. The aim of that deal was to bring greater security, reliability, and configurability to satellite constellations, both in the defence and civilian realms.
Founded in 2015, In-Space believes that the global market for space technologies could be worth up to $1 trillion by 2040, tripling its current value. So, one year on from the Space Strategy’s launch, what does this homegrown player make of the UK’s progress in a market that is increasingly dominated by US entrepreneurs like SpaceX supremo Elon Musk? And how does the company see its own progress?
Doug Liddle is In-Space Systems CEO. He says:
We came together to embrace the whole ‘new space’ ecosystem and approach, and look at how we could apply some ‘old space’ thinking to new-space problems. A lot of new-space teams are in their 20s, they're fresh faced, and they haven't made the usual mistakes yet. We come in with a similar level of enthusiasm to find the innovative things that can really solve current problems.
Our idea is to start putting assets in orbit that are reconfigurable from the ground. So, the satellite becomes more like an iPhone or a smartphone. You can put the infrastructure in space and then programme it from the ground to behave however you need it to.
And that means we can put multiple customers on one satellite, which means that we can re-task the satellite dynamically to behave differently, depending on the emerging situation. That could be a commercial situation, but it also applies to the security and defence world.
So, among other areas, In-Space focuses on the technology hotspot of smaller, more dynamic and sustainable satellites, rather than the large systems that are often put in orbit and left to fall to Earth a few years later. A conversation with BAE last summer persuaded both companies that they were working along similar lines, leading to the acquisition.
The idea we latched onto early is that satellites need to be flexible and reconfigurable because, more and more often, there are a lot of small or new businesses setting up systems in space, but with an uncertain market, and without the capability to necessarily build a spacecraft that would work and be able to deal with all the regulatory stuff.
A space first for Europe
Spacecraft of another kind are also an important area for Britain. The UK is scheduled to bolster its galactic ambitions in October with the first ever space rocket launch from British soil. The horizontal launch from Spaceport Cornwall, via a modified Virgin Orbit 747 plane (which will carry the rocket out over the Atlantic like a missile), will be the first European space rocket launch in history. And In-Space will make history by having two of its Prometheus-2 cube satellites (cubesats) among the payloads. Liddle says:
That is going to happen in the next month. But what we're looking at for the UK are a number of other spaceports enabling vertical launches too. At the top of Scotland, in the A’Mhoine Peninsula in Sutherland, there's a spaceport being built. There's also one on Shetland, which would enable us to vertical launch – the traditional concrete launch pad with a rocket. So much is happening.
And for In-Space too, Liddle explains:
BAE Systems and In-Space are launching the Azalea cluster of four satellites. Each will have different sensors on it. We'll be looking at Synthetic Aperture Radar [SAR], visible light at different resolutions, and the ability to collect RF information from the ground.
The purpose is to deliver timely, actionable intelligence, which is essential for both military operations and civilian applications such as disaster response. Unlike conventional, single-purpose satellites, the cluster can be fully reconfigured while in orbit, in line with the company’s strategy.
We're not talking about listening to people's phone calls, but we are talking about being able to detect if somebody is using a cell phone or somebody is using a VHF radio, for instance. You'll be able to build up a really comprehensive and interesting picture of what's happening on the ground, which is then complemented by the ability to do onboard processing.
We're employing machine learning onboard the satellites. Then that data can be brought back either as a much smaller piece that might just give us the latitude and longitude and a flag that something interesting is happening, or we can bring back all the data.
So, how military focused is In-Space since the BAE acquisition last year? Has it changed the core mission of the company? Liddle says:
Yes, but not in the way you would expect. We were already quite defence focused. And throughout the pandemic, the Ministry of Defence was stepping up and getting more interested in what could be done, so we had started to pick up a lot of defence work during the pandemic, right up to the time of the acquisition.
As well as the Prometheus-2, we're also building the Titania satellite [a laser-based, 10 Gbps optical communications demonstrator] for the Defence, Science and Technology Laboratory [DSTL].
But following the acquisition, we made an agreement that for some of these satellites, our focus is going to be more on the civil and the commercial side, while BAE itself will take more of a lead with defence customers.
So, what does Liddle think of the UK’s progress to date with the Space Strategy, and how is the worsening economic environment impacting on the sector – if at all? He says:
There were some very interesting, bold statements made both last year and this – including in the Defence Space Strategy . But the devil’s in the detail now. We're moving rapidly in both of those strategies into the implementation phase.
But obviously, uncertainty in government doesn't help in terms of moving fast. We now need to see how BEIS [the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy] responds to space, because obviously there's a whole bunch of new people in there. But in terms of the UK Space Agency, they seem to be moving at a good pace.
Certainly, nobody's walking anything back. On the Defence Space Strategy, we're seeing things happening, but the National Space Strategy is moving a little bit slower. If I was going to give them a report card, it wouldn't be an A grade, but it would be a solid B.
One of a promising range of UK start-ups in a dynamic and exciting sector. But while no one could fault the UK’s ambition, constant political upheavals in Whitehall leave many in the UK wondering what on Earth is coming next, which impedes bold strategic plans.