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PM Johnson at Spaceport Cornwall
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson at Spaceport Cornwall, the future UK base of Virgin Orbit, in June. Enabling British launch vehicles and spaceports is one element of a broader national space strategy unveiled last month. (credit: Virgin Orbit)

The UK looks for its place in space


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It was a line that launched a thousand jokes. When the British government released a national space strategy document September 27, it included a foreword from Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who decided to riff off the concept the government had been pushing of a “Global Britain” in the post-Brexit era.

The report, Johnson wrote, offered “a plan that will see us take a leading role on the international stage, Global Britain becoming Galactic Britain as we work with other nations to pursue exciting missions and with the UN to set the standards that will ensure space is used responsibly and safely.”

“At the heart of this strategy, we recognize and state clearly that we see this as part of a global race for the new space economy, and the UK has some very strong strengths that we want to play to,” said Freeman.

The idea of a “Galactic Britain,” whatever that meant, drew guffaws as the country struggled to find its bearings in the aftermath of both the coronavirus pandemic and Brexit. At least, more than one person pointed out, in a Galactic Britain the suns would never set on the British Empire.

The comments about Galactic Britain distracted from the substance of the report, which was an effort by the government to outline exactly what role it saw Britain playing in a growing global space economy, particularly now that it was no longer part of the European Union but still a member of the European Space Agency.

“At the heart of this strategy, we recognize and state clearly that we see this as part of a global race for the new space economy, and the UK has some very strong strengths that we want to play to,” said George Freeman, who was appointed science minister in the British government last month, during a presentation at the UK Space Conference the day of the report’s release.

The report was a mix of goals, pillars, and ten-point plans for Britain’s future in space. The report listed five goals for the UK in space: growing its space economy, promoting an “open and stable international order” in space, supporting space science research and inspiring the public, protecting national interests in and using space, and using space to support both British citizens and the world.

The UK would achieve those goals through four pillars. One is to grow the country’s space sector in several ways, such as promoting development of launch vehicles and spaceports, implementing “modern” space regulations, and ensuring access to financing and insurance. A second pillar is devoted to international collaboration, primarily through ESA but also directly with other countries, including the United States. A third pillar seeks to turn Britain into a “superpower” in space science and technology through participation on ESA programs and increased defense investment in space. The fourth and final pillar involves development of “resilient” space capabilities, from communications and navigation to launch and satellite servicing.

That’s a lot, something the government acknowledged in the report. “Government cannot pursue every space-related activity now. We must make tough strategic choices and target resources to pursue the highest impact opportunities and the critical cross-cutting enablers that will lay the groundwork for a thriving future in space,” it stated (emphasis in original.)

That prioritization took the form of a ten-point plan identifying initial focus areas. Those range from becoming the “leading provider of commercial small satellite launch in Europe by 2030” and “establish global leadership in space sustainability” to using space services to modernize the country’s transportation system.

The ambition of the report, at the very least, won over many in the British space industry. “Moving space up the priority list within government through the new National Space Strategy is most welcome and can help to unleash the UK sector to drive further green economic growth and make significant contributions to the levelling up agenda,” said Rajeev Suri, CEO of London-based satellite operator Inmarsat.

“The first UK National Space Strategy highlights the potential of the end-to-end space capabilities provided by the UK space industry,” said Edward F. Jamieson, business development manager for government programs for NanoAvionics UK, a smallsat manufacturer. “The importance of small satellite technology, in furthering the development of the UK space industry as recognized in the Strategy, should not be underestimated.”

But, while the strategy was long on ambition, it was short on details. The goals were all very qualitative, and even the specifics of the ten-point plan offered few concrete metrics other than conducting the “first small satellite launch from Europe in 2022” and bring the leading provider of smallsat launch in Europe by 2030.

In fact, the report dropped one quantitative metric the British government had been using for the industry. For the last several years, the government had set the goal of capturing 10% of the global space economy by 2030. In 2019, the British space sector generated £16.4 billion out of a global space economy it estimated at £270 billion, or about 6%. But the strategy document, while mentioning the size of the British space sector, made no mention of a 10% goal.

The report noted that the UK space sector has grown at an annual rate of 4.7% in the last four years. But it also stated that the global space economy was forecast to grow at an annual rate of 5.6% through 2030.

That omission was deliberate, a government official said during a panel later in the online conference. “It’s been quite a long time since that initial 10% target was set,” said Rebecca Evernden, director for space at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.

“We concluded that we needed a more sophisticated way to measure growth in the various parts of the UK space sector which is less clumsy, if you like, than a single headline growth target which is somewhat subject to the whims of foreign exchange rates and other factors that can perhaps skew the big picture of what is a very strong growth story in the UK,” she said. The government is working on an alternative set of metrics, but she offered no specifics on what those would be or when they would be ready.

Another reason for abandoning the 10% goal, perhaps, is that the UK was not gaining ground on it. The report noted that the UK space sector has grown at an annual rate of 4.7% in the last four years. But a technical annex to the report stated that the global space economy was forecast to grow at an annual rate of 5.6% through 2030. It’s hard to gain market share when your national space economy isn’t growing as fast as the global space economy.

Another detail missing in the report was funding. The strategy document doesn’t commit the government to any new funding to support civil, military, or commercial space activities.

Freeman said at the conference that the lack of information on funding was because a national budget, called the Comprehensive Spending Review, was due out in October and would include those details. “Let me reassure you,” he said, “we wouldn’t be launching this strategy now if we weren’t fully committed to it.”

Another uncertainty is the UK’s relationship with the EU post-Brexit. When the two governments reached a final agreement late last year on Britain’s exit from the EU, they agreed that the UK would no longer have access to the secure signals from the Galileo satellite navigation system—it could continue to use the public signal, like the rest of the world—and British companies would no longer be able to work on the program.

With Brexit looming, the British government suggested it would pursue some kind of satellite navigation system of its own. That interest, many in the industry believe, led to the government joining forces with Indian telecom company Bharti Global to acquire OneWeb after it filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection last year. OneWeb executives say they are interested in offering navigation services, although that may have to wait until a second-generation constellation. The strategy only says that the government “is evaluating the case for investing in resilient Position, Navigation and Timing (PNT) capabilities through a mix of innovative new terrestrial and space-based technologies.”

“We’re already behind the rest of the world,” said Stanniland. “If we don’t outpace them, we’ll never catch up.”

The situation with the EU’s other major space program, the Copernicus series of Earth observation satellites, is more complex. Under last year’s Brexit agreement, the UK can continue to be a part of Copernicus, but an agreement needed to implement that cooperation hasn’t been finalized. Copernicus is also a joint program between the EU and ESA, with UK a major player in the ESA aspect of the effort.

Copernicus “is a vital part of our ecosystem,” Freeman said, but didn’t elaborate on the status of that implementing agreement with the EU.

“The UK might have left the European political union, but we’re not leaving the European scientific, cultural and research community,” he said, noting that he had backed Remain in the 2016 Brexit referendum. “We want to make sure that, post our withdrawal from the EU, we become an even stronger player in that research community.”

While many in industry welcomed the new strategy, at least one executive on a conference expressed a sense of urgency for the UK to place a greater emphasis on space as it finds its place in Europe and the world.

“We’re already behind the rest of the world,” said Andrew Stanniland, CEO of Thales Alenia Space UK. “If we don’t outpace them, we’ll never catch up.”


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