BRIEFING
[ 9 September 2018 ]

Satellites

This is no pie in the sky. Britain makes 40 per cent of the world’s small satellites. And as our tenth briefing on British excellence explores, the final frontier is to start launching them from here as well.

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Look up to the heavens

The figures for 2017 show the turnover of the UK space industry at £15bn (6.5 per cent of the global market) and growing annually at seven per cent. It’s an industry which has been growing steadily and impressively over the past decade.

Glasgow: the satellite capital of Europe

Glasgow-based AAC Clyde Space is the global leader in the design, manufacture and operation of CubeSats and NanoSats, miniature satellites used for space research. These tiny spacecraft have a huge range of data collection applications, from telecommunications to shipping tracking and infrared imaging of the world’s oceans. According to this database , 875 CubeSats and 958 NanoSats have been launched to date. It’s estimated that more than 3,000 such satellites will be in orbit in the next five years - and four out of ten of them will be made in Glasgow. (The company is now a subsidiary of Swedish company AAC Microtec.)

And all this science, I don't understand

AAC Clyde Space is not alone in Glasgow. Bird.i is a satellite imagery startup whose analysis is changing the way commodity traders worldwide make decisions. Alba Orbital says it is “the largest picosat company in the world.” US-based satellite maker Spire Global has a presence in the city. According to this story , Spire’s 78 nano-sats in orbit track 75,000 individual vessels a day.

Inmarsat we trust

The Grande Dame of the UK satellite scene is London-based Inmarsat , the 40-year-old corporation that was born out of the International Maritime Organisation. With a fleet of 13 satellites, it is the world market leader in global mobile satellite communications. The US military is its largest single customer. But sorry guys, we also hold you responsible for ruining the peace of air transport by facilitating inflight wifi .

Why Guildford matters

In the late 1970s, a group of aerospace researchers at the University of Surrey tried to build a satellite using commercial off-the-shelf components (COTS in satellite lingo). Remarkably, their first homebrew satellite, UoSat-1, was launched in 1981 with the help of NASA and out-lived its planned three year life by more than five years. In 1985 Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd was formed as a university spin-out and in 2009 Airbus bought a majority stake. SSTL , as it is now called, is an independent company within the aerospace giant. So when you next pass by Guildford on the A3, look on it as the birthplace of the satellite age. It's a truly world class company.

And so does Oxfordshire

It’s home to the Harwell Space Cluster , “the gateway to the UK space sector.” That includes the European Space Agency, the Satellite Applications Catapult and UK Space Agency. (But there are five other centres of excellence . around the country.)

"The River Clyde once built 25 per cent of all of the world's ships. At Clyde Space, our romantic vision is for one day this to be true for spaceships."

AAC Clyde Space

Putting in the pounds

OK, so investing in space is a US-dominated affair. Just think of Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos. But outside of the US, British investors ranked first in global investment in the space econom y. And 20 per cent of non-US space startups are in the UK. The world’s first venture fund focused on space technology was created and run by Seraphim , a British investment firm. Its investment thesis: to invest in companies “that are transforming global industries through the generation, enhancement and application of satellite and drone enabled data.”

Bismillah! Galileo and Brexit

One of the EU’s flagship space projects is the Galileo navigation system. British-based companies have been central its development since its launch in 2003. (SSTL, for example, has provided all of the payloads that transmit signals from Galileo’s operational satellites.) But Brexit has thrown that up in the air, so to speak. There’s a good summary of the Brexit and space issues in this article by Bleddyn Bowen . The Government has announced plans to invest £92m of “Brexit readiness” money on an independent satellite system.

"Britain is at the cutting edge of space science and technology, particularly in sophisticated space-data digital processing and advanced satellite payloads"

Gabriel Elefteriu, Policy Exchange

Rocket men (and women)

As Britain is good at making satellites, the next step is to be as good at launching them. A plan for a spaceport in Sutherland has been announced . It would be the first rocket launching site in Europe. Sites including Newquay, Glasgow Prestwick and Snowdonia are also being encouraged to develop their sub-orbital flight, satellite launch and spaceplane ambitions.


The UK Space Agency hopes that these launch facilities will attract launch providers to Britain, including traditional rockets launching vertically, new air-launch systems or point-to-point transportation systems for high-speed travel around the world. Apparently geography is on our side. The north of Scotland has "a really clear access to the most popular orbits for small satellites,” the UKSA’s Claire Barcham tells CNBC in this article .

Light touch launches

This space launch activity has been unlocked by the Space Industry Act ( here it is, if you want to read it) , which is claimed by the Government to be “the most modern piece of space industry regulation anywhere in the world.”

Verdict

The strategic aim is for the UK to have ten per cent of the global space economy by 2030. Here’s how. But some argue that our hitherto successful - and very commercial - approach may need to be amplified - “perhaps the time has come to add a strategic element to how we approach space and to acknowledge UK space power as a key dimension of national power in the 21st century,” argues Gabriel Elefteriu for Policy Exchange . So onwards and upwards - but we think it's gonna be a long long time.

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