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Blog: The UK space sector, COVID-19 and the Midlands

Written by Professor Martin Barstow, Space Park Leicester – Director, Strategic Partnerships, University of Leicester [24 June 2020]

The UK Space Sector

The Space sector is an important contributor to the UK Economy, delivering approximately £15billion per annum coupled to a strong rate of growth. Its importance is recognised by the UK Government, as highlighted in the Industrial Strategy, with aim of developing a £40B UK sector, a significant share of global activity, and 100,000 new jobs by 2030. A large factor in this strengthened sense of purpose has been the Space Growth Partnership, bringing industry, academic and government interests together for almost a decade. Some key developments in this period have been the creation of the Satellite Applications Catapult, expansion of the Harwell Campus (including location of the ESA ECSAT facility there) and a decision to support launch services from the UK mainland.  However, for both political and practical reasons, it is clear that development of the space sector within the UK cannot all take place in the South East of the country. The plan to build Space Park Leicester, creating a Midlands space cluster, has been positioned as a leading contribution to National infrastructure, alongside others, including Goonhilly Earth Station, Westcott, Surrey and Strathclyde, for example.

An important element of Government industrial and social policy has been the “place” agenda, recognising that development and economic benefit have been to concentrated in the South East of the country and that other regions require more support. In the current administration, this is now referred to as “levelling up”. Important responses to this have been the creation of the Midlands Engine and the Midlands Innovation consortium of universities across the region to support economic and societal development. All of the Midlands Innovation universities have significant interests in aspects of space research or in technologies that are important for space activities. Coupled with Midlands strengths in manufacturing and energy, growth of the space economy in the region is a strong prospect and a source of high value jobs with the right investments.

The value of collaboration

To build on the track records of individual institutions a Midlands Innovation Space Group has been created to pool expertise and foster closer collaboration on potential funding opportunities, particularly to engage in large multi-institution programmes. Across the partnership, institutions cover all aspects of upstream and downstream space research besides a wide range of related technology developments and application of space technology in non-space areas. A compilation of Midlands Innovation space capability has been created, which will be used to showcase the collaboration, which is being complemented by a survey of the scale of activity. A conservative estimate currently indicates that there are more than 600 people engaged in some aspect of space research and development across the partnership.

Space Park Leicester (SPL) is an important vehicle for leveraging the anticipated growth in the space economy. Built on the University of Leicester’s 60-year record of leading centre of space research, it will be a world-leading hub for space and space-enabled industry and centre for the translation of space research and Earth observation (EO) data into commercial applications, services and businesses. The capital building programme is supported by the University, Local Growth Funds, the Research England UKRPIF scheme and a range of partners – a £100M investment. The buildings will house a University research, skills and education hub alongside a collaborative community of businesses, start-ups, researchers & students. The NERC National Centre for Earth Observation, UKSA Centre for Earth Observation & Instrumentation, a Satellite Applications Catapult office, an ESA BIC and UKSA Space Business Incubators will also be located there.

While, initially, the development of SPL focussed on its location in Leicester and the immediate benefits to that local economy, it has always been conceived to have regional, national and international benefits in the longer term. In particular, in the Midlands Innovation context, the potential development opportunities are much wider than can be delivered by a single institution. Furthermore, SPL will deliver a set of facilities unique in the Midlands and the UK, from which all Midland Innovation partners can benefit. One aim of the Midlands Innovation Space Group is to provide a forum through which the partner institutions work together with SPL.

UK Space Successes

It has been an exciting time for Space in recent years. The UK’s first commercial space port, to be located in Scotland, is beginning development, coupled with Virgin Orbit planning to operate horizontal launch services from Newquay in Cornwall (launching rockets from an aeroplane flown out into the Atlantic). Unfortunately, a recent test of the Virgin Orbit rocket failed early in flight, but several further rockets are in preparation and will be modified once the cause of the failure is known. The USA is developing ambitious exploration plans in collaboration with international agencies, including the UKSA and ESA. Key elements are the construction of a Lunar Gateway space station and a return to the moon supported by a mixture of agency and commercial human space flight operations. A clear demonstration of this was the recent successful flight to the International Space Station of the Space-X Dragon capsule, carrying two astronauts – the first crewed launch from the USA in almost a decade.

The successes of Space-X and other private companies are examples of how the space business is changing. Manufacturing has been, and still is to a significant extent, a “Rolls Royce” production process, where satellites and instruments are mostly hand-built by teams of engineers, technicians and scientists. For example, the largest British-based satellite manufacturer, Airbus, specialises in multi-tonne, spacecraft for telecoms, remote sensing and space exploration. Surrey Satellite Technology Limited (now part of Airbus) has pioneered the development and use of small satellites (100kg or so) for specialist applications and built a significant international business around these. In the past few years international companies such as Thales Alenia Space and Lockheed Martin have established significant commercial operations in the UK. However, all are producing only small numbers (e.g. a few) of spacecraft per year.

All these companies (and others), the “upstream sector”, make important contributions to the UK economy but the balance of the space sector is shifting rapidly towards the “downstream”, exploitation of data obtained from space systems and the development of applications. Important, early examples are satellite navigation, climate and weather monitoring, smarter agriculture and disaster/incident management but the list is growing and extending into parts of the economy not normally thought of as “space”. In fact, there is a whole set of challenges around the identification of new entrants into the space business and creating links to the providers of the data and products they need.

Increased demand for data will result in a greatly expanded need for space platforms, continuous coverage of particular locations and high time resolution monitoring to allow rapid response and mitigation. Therefore, we will need fleets of small satellites, “constellations”, hosting dedicated instruments. Lowering the cost of access to space and increasing the volume of production is a key challenge. The strong Midlands manufacturing base and the space expertise in Midlands Innovation put us in a good position to respond.

Challenges and opportunities

In contrast to recent progress, there are also tremendous challenges and emerging threats. Space is a robust international business that is relatively immune to economic cycles, but loss of access to programmes, as a result of BREXIT, is a significant threat. Our role in the Copernicus seems to have been reaffirmed as a result of the November 2019 ESA meeting of ministers, with an increased UK contribution to ESA programmes, although there are still concerns about exploitation opportunities which remain linked to EU funding. Our expulsion from the Galileo navigation programme is a problem that has received much high-profile coverage.  A UK replacement has been proposed, but Government appetite for the several billion-pound price-tag was becoming diluted even before the heavy financial commitments made to the economy because of COVID-19.

So far, the effect of COVID-19 on the space business seems to have been limited. Much of the work that is carried out in companies, like in Universities, can be undertaken remotely: the sector is used to multi-partner remote meetings as a normal way of conducting business. As space has been viewed as critical infra-structure by the Government, it has also been possible for most operational activity in cleanrooms and manufacturing facilities to continue, with suitable protection measures. Therefore, the delivery of projects has not so-far been affected in any significant way. It is also clear that exemptions from the new quarantine regulations for air-travel will be granted to those conducting mission critical business such as support of satellite testing and launch. In the academic sector, the effects of the shutdown have been more significant. As Universities have had to close laboratories and cleanrooms, work on project hardware as halted. In the USA testing of the James Webb Space Telescope has paused, leading to a further launch delay. The pressure on an already tight schedule for the ESA ExoMars rover has led to a delay beyond the current launch window in July to the next one in 2022. It is becoming increasingly urgent that University facilities reopen to avoid further programme delays.

There is considerable uncertainty about how the post-lockdown world will be. However, there will be some clear impacts on space activities. Upstream space companies are reporting weaker than usual order books, as the attention of potential customers has been diverted and they may be dealing with their own difficulties. These space companies are often embedded in larger aerospace organisations, which have been affected by the down turn in air travel. In Universities we are all concerned about the potential impact of COVID-19 on student numbers and fee income. Lower fee income will make it harder to support high-cost research programmes. Nevertheless, space activities can be an important part of any recovery process. The space sector has the capacity to generate growth quickly, producing new jobs that can replace at least some of those lost elsewhere. With SPL coming on-line in 2021 and the Midlands Innovation Space Group maturing from a discussion forum into a project delivery phase, our region is very well placed to support economic regeneration and become a significant part of the UK space economy.