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Why UK space tech is now ready for take-off

Chris Middleton Profile picture for user cmiddleton December 8, 2022
A new UK rocket launch is imminent and we take a look at what it means for British innovation.

An image of a rocket launching into space with clouds around it
(Image by WikiImages from Pixabay )

When, two Prime Ministers ago, Boris Johnson hailed the UK’s new Space Strategy, he reached for his characteristic rhetoric, as if to prove that you can reach space on hot air (it’s called rocket science). In his foreword to the September 2021 document, he wrote:

The days of the UK space industry idling on the launch pad are over – this government has 'The Right Stuff', and this Strategy marks the start of the countdown...

And so on; the relentless metaphors continued, of course. But for once, Johnson was almost right. Next week, the first commercial rocket launch in Western Europe is scheduled to take place from the UK’s own Spaceport Cornwall. Not vertically from a launch pad, however, but horizontally out over the Atlantic from a Virgin Orbit 747 jet. The earliest launch window (weather and technical checks depending) is 14 December. Great news for UK innovators.

So, what has all this got to do with information technology? A lot, if you consider that the UK’s space industry is primarily focused on satellite navigation, communications, and hardware (including sensors), and on satellite management, maintenance and retrieval, including via robotics. 

(Let’s draw a veil over the government’s recent decision to go with Elon Musk’s Starlink constellation, rather than with OneWeb, for the UK’s experiments in satellite broadband. Former Johnson advisor Dominic Cummings’ grand plan for a UK-owned satellite system with OneWeb was, it seems, more like Dominic ‘goings’.)

And that’s not to mention the burgeoning launch industry to put advanced technologies in orbit from home soil. If plans come to fruition, there will be a total of seven UK spaceports: one apiece for England and Wales, and the rest in Scotland, three of which will launch rockets vertically like giant space cabers. The serious point is that Scotland will become the epicentre of the UK’s rocket-fuelled ambitions once that infrastructure is complete. 

Speaking this month, Space Scotland’s new Executive Director, Dr Hina Khan, struck a people-centric note rather than being focused on the technology. She said:

The space sector in Scotland is a very close-knit community which creates togetherness for businesses across the board. This means that we can connect with the people who make the decisions very quickly to create real and tangible outcomes, which is a great benefit.

Excellent news. However, Britain’s launch ambitions beg the question of how much Brexit-related red tape and paperwork will be necessary to put EU technologies in orbit from the UK. The administrative and transport burdens alone seem likely to favour launches from the European mainland, at least in the long term. 

That aside, it’s worth reminding ardent Brexiters that space remains – and should always be – a collaborative market. The UK is still a key member of the European Space Agency (ESA): one of the few technology, research, funding, and risk-sharing partnerships that hasn’t crashed and burned since the 2016 referendum. 

Indeed, it is a founding member of ESA, which is independent of the EU. That membership is one reason for there being over 47,000 jobs in the UK space industry at present (more are being added), and the sector contributing £16.5 billion a year to the British economy, according to government figures.

Sadly, Brexit zealots will be enraged at news that the UK committed a further £1.84 billion to European space programmes at this year’s ESA Council of Minister’s meeting in Paris. According to Whitehall, that investment will go towards support for projects such as the UK-built Rosalind Franklin Mars rover, Earth observation technologies, climate programmes, the Vigil space weather (solar storm) monitoring system, and more. Whatever our politics, we all benefit from those.

However, the UK’s membership of the EU’s Copernicus Earth observation project remains uncertain at the time of writing. Inevitably, that’s because of Brexit, and some of the funds the UK has given to ESA were originally earmarked for Copernicus.

Of the recent ESA meeting, Science, Research & Innovation Minister George Freeman said:

The rapidly growing global commercial space sector is driving a new space race for geopolitical and commercial soft power. […] The European Space Agency Council of Ministers was an important opportunity to deepen our international relationships with the goal of advancing space technology for the benefit of all.

But Freeman couldn’t resist some political point-scoring. He added:

I’m delighted to return from the meeting with such a strong package of commitments, as well as being able to provide support for our outstanding Earth observation sector, to protect it from the uncertainty caused as a result of the EU’s delays, as we continue seeking Copernicus association.

This constant blaming of the EU for what are, on the whole, the UK’s self-inflicted problems is crass and unhelpful. Particularly when ESA partnership remains critical to the UK economy, and to Britain’s status as a space-faring nation with a thriving community of technology innovators. 

New opportunities 

In the meantime, according to a government announcement this month, the UK space sector will benefit from the following ESA commitments – some of which extend to partnerships with the US space program:

  • £217 million in support of robotic missions to Mars and contributing to NASA’s Artemis Moon programme, including the Argonaut (European Large Logistics Lander), the Gateway space station, and commercial lunar communications systems.
  • £206 million for telecommunications, building on the success of the European Centre for Space Applications and Telecommunications in Harwell, to enable faster 5G and future 6G connectivity, develop new optical and quantum communications systems, and support constellations of low Earth orbit (LEO) satellites.
  • £111 million to bolster space safety and security, improve forecasting, and build resilience to dangerous space weather. This money will help protect critical national infrastructure on Earth, while also tackling the growing challenge of space debris. In turn, this will catalyse growth and investment in high-potential areas, including in-orbit satellite servicing and manufacturing.
  • And £71 million to back new technologies, help start-ups and SMEs develop new ideas and products, and “reduce reliance on non-European nations for important electronic components”. (Whisper it: the UK wants to minimize reliance on China by turning to the EU for help.)
  • In related news this month, fusion energy research facility the Culham Science Centre, the Harwell campus in Oxfordshire, the UK Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA), and the Satellite Applications Catapult have partnered to demonstrate how the advanced remote-handling and robotics technologies developed for fusion-energy research could also be used to provide maintenance for in-orbit satellites. 

This cross-cutting application of technologies (such as robotic hands and grippers, computer vision, communications, autonomy, and telepresence/telexistence/remote operation systems) is important to the commercial success of UK robotics. That’s especially true in extreme environments such as space, deep mining, nuclear decommissioning, offshore maintenance, and deep-sea engineering.

Space debris is a bigger challenge than most people realize: around 6,000 satellites are in orbit around the Earth, but only 40% of them are operational. The remaining 60% are, therefore, effectively part of the growing cloud of debris in space, posing a danger to spacecraft.

My take

The UK’s space program is both a source of national pride and optimism, and an example of the many upsides of European collaboration and cooperation. Let’s hope that policymakers continue to see the benefits of ESA membership and won’t be bounced by hardliners into abandoning that relationship.

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