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UK Space Agency CIO preps launch pad

Mark Chillingworth Profile picture for user Mark Chillingworth May 13, 2022
Spaceports and low orbit satellites are taking off globally. Mat Mallett, CDIO of the UK Space agency describes their plans to be a booster rocket

Image of a planet in space
(Image by LoganArt from Pixabay )

Launching a rocket into space immediately conjures images of Cape Canaveral and the enormous Titan rockets or the Space Shuttle and the three boosters that shot it outside of the earth’s atmosphere. However, a new era of rocket launching is about to take off, and 88 new spaceports are being developed around the world in countries that include Spain, Sweden, Germany, Norway and the UK. 

The new space race is attracting commercial interest and economic opportunities for the host nations. The UK Space Agency, part of the government, is tasked with ensuring that Britain gets a good slice of the market; as a result, the Agency has transformed from a policy department to be a delivery vehicle for the sector.

Mat Mallett, Chief Digital Information Officer (CDIO) for the UK Space Agency, is leading the second phase of the technology journey at the organization, which includes acting as a technology resource to the burgeoning industry.  

Bankers Morgan Stanley believes $10 billion in revenue will be generated by satellite launches by 2030 and, in the footsteps of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, the space tourism market could be worth $3 billion in the same time period, according to Cambridge, MA-based space industry analysts Northern Sky Research. Driving the growth in satellite launch revenue is the development of low orbit small satellites. Of the opportunity ahead, Mallett says:

You will see satellites being used by insurance, construction, transport - almost every sector will come to have a space-related aspect.

These are nanosats; they can be 10cm by 10cm by 10 cm and weigh just 1.3kilograms.

Orbex is a UK developed launcher that is just seven metres long and looks like a cruise missile. The Orbex has a 3D printed engine and is an example of the small specialist engineering but high value and high impact business that the UK Space Agency is keen to foster.  

Rebooted as the UK Space Agency in 2010 with a new remit, Mallett says:

The agency is a critical linchpin in the nation’s space economy as we are the glue that underpins the National Space Strategy.

The strategy was launched in 2021 and was the first time civil and military space requirements, and opportunities were brought together. As a result, Mallett and the UK Space Agency work closely with the Ministry of Defence, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), the Met Office, Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Of the team at the UK Space Agency, Mallett says:

It is an amazing bunch of rocket scientists and people, passionate about space.

The space industry has been steadily growing across the UK too, the Leicester Space Park opened in March 2022, providing a £100 million research centre in collaboration with the University of Leicester that aims to act as a teaching and innovation hub for the industry and city. Similar innovation hubs have been successful for medical science in Oxford and Cambridge, as well as artificial intelligence in the Netherlands. Space Park Leicester aims to boost the regional economy by £750 million and provide 2500 jobs.

Spaceports are opening in Scotland, Cornwall and Sunderland, the latter providing 40 jobs and is set to be the launchpad for the Orbex rocket. Alongside working with the new space businesses and hubs around the island, the UK Space Agency is also responsible for managing the UK’s close relationship with the European Space Agency (ESA).

New mission

In order to support Space Park Leicester and the spaceports Mallett explains that the Agency has moved from being a policy organization to a delivery vehicle. Currently, the UK Space Agency has a launch programme, investing in small satellite and sub-orbital flight markets as well as spaceports, an innovation programme which fosters investment in new space technologies, and a discovery programme that is looking at data, payloads and space exploration. Whilst the fourth looks at the wider collaboration opportunities, whether with ESA or other bodies, to improve navigation and earth observations. Mallett adds:

We are sponsoring a lot of research at UK universities in areas like propulsion, robotics and dealing with space debris. Every £1 invested will have a return of £20, and I have seen a real positive change since we changed direction as an agency. Small satellites and small rockets are our investment priority.

Mallett joined the Agency in December 2020 as its first CDIO, his role being to redirect the course of UK Space Agency technology to support those four areas of delivery. He says:

My role is to look at the supply chain of business partners and at our strategy and then work to ensure our technological abilities help smaller space industries get off the ground. So we can provide the platforms to them so that their focus is on their research and not burning 20% of their funds on administration. I describe it as an ecosystem approach.

Mallett says the space industry startups and academics can therefore benefit from the Agency ensuring strong cybersecurity, which will protect their research and future businesses from the rising tide of threats that cutting edge industries face. Mallett adds:

The agency is part of the critical national infrastructure, and our security teams have been out to the spaceports.

The challenge is supporting and enabling the collaborative nature of scientific research and startup businesses with a strong security posture. Mallet adds:

We always have to methodically assess the threat risk and the number of touchpoints. We have to be pragmatic.

Delivering a service

Mallett spent 13 years in senior service delivery roles before becoming a CIO, heading delivery in financial services, Securicor and oil firm BP. The CIO says this has enabled him to understand the needs of the end-user and customer, whether they be a rocket scientist, consumers or police officer. This has shaped how he leads as a CDIO, he explains:

Right through from working on a service desk to programme delivery, you get to understand what the end customer needs and why. Now, as a CIO, I always make sure that our delivery people sit the user for the first two weeks in a role.

As CDIO at the UK Space Agency, Mallett is on the receiving end of technology services, not only from vendors but also from the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS).The BEIS Cirrus programme of digital architecture and platforms has delivered Microsoft Teams and 365 across the central government department and 42 agencies (UK Space Agency being one) that BEIS is responsible for. Mallett says of the arrangement:

I get economies of scale, and I get a managed services wrap. That has enabled me to have a small team that is focused on strategy. BEIS supplies the applications to work with and scale at minimum cost, so I can be flexible.”

My take

The first years of my writing career were spent in motorsport, and there is much that is similar between the space race and the Grand Prix circuit. The UK is well placed to be a strong contender in space industries, small specialist engineering-oriented firms with good connections to academia is something the UK specializes in and generally does well. UK companies of this scale and expertise dominate motorsport and are all highly tech literate. The space race looks set to follow the same trajectory.  

That the UK government is putting in place the infrastructure to support the national space race can only be a good thing. The lightness of touch approach by the department is to be applauded. It would have been all too easy for a major government body to grow into Deathstar proportions with massive service deals with major vendors. Instead, the CDIO and department are clearly focused on what the end-user community needs. Drawing on the technologies available as part of BEIS makes this lightness of approach possible.

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