In setting out our vision for the UK space sector in 2035, we presented an audacious set of technological and business advances which will position the UK at the centre of the global space economy.
Today, we are launching our ‘Route to Growth’, which lays out major, interlinked areas in which the UK must lead if our vision is to become reality. We need to turn our expertise into new innovations, new capabilities, and new commercial success, so the UK can play an ever more expansive, forward-looking role in this new world that space is creating.
So how do we get there?
The basis for strong growth for the UK lies in our world-leading satellite manufacturing sector, which will shortly be supported by launches from UK soil. Together, these provide a once-in-a-generation opportunity to elevate the UK space sector to a completely new international standing which will translate directly into jobs and economic growth. The strategic case is compelling; if we do not act now, it will impact our future ability to innovate and our credibility as a ‘space nation’.
We believe there are then two main elements to achieve this growth for the UK space sector, and both start from today.
From today – we need to energise the commercial market for satellite applications and mega constellations to deliver societal benefit and grow advanced manufacturing supply-chains in the UK. This will deliver short-term economic return and create a new technology base for future growth.
Across a number of market sectors, the promise of space and satellite technology has not yet been fully translated into economic benefits and there is still room for growth in the uptake of cost-effective space-derived solutions and services including:
- Demand for ‘everywhere-connectivity’ as a critical infrastructure. As we emerge from months of home-working and schooling, everybody now understands the need for consistent, reliable, low-cost, everywhere-connectivity. Demand for novel, socially distant ways to work and keep-in-touch will continue, and these services can only realistically be delivered by integrating space and terrestrial systems. New satellite capacity is coming on-line quickly and we can drive this integration in the UK, delivering significant societal benefit and dramatically increasing usage.
- Capitalizing on the OneWeb investment. OneWeb is a key asset in responding to the needs of ‘everywhere-connectivity’. If we are proactive, we can leverage this investment to enable international growth in connectivity, antennas, positioning, timing and advanced manufacturing. We need to move quickly to build the supply chains because these capabilities, if secured as a UK asset, will support new advanced systems concepts coming online in the future.
- Unlocking the power of database ‘Planet Earth’. The volume of daily satellite data on the health of our planet is accelerating exponentially. Earth is fast becoming the most ‘queryable’ database for scientists, governments, businesses, and citizens looking to understand and better manage our planet. But geospatial intelligence is yet to be mainstream. In the UK, we need to combine our strengths in data science and finance to ensure our data is the go-to source for transparent verification of investment activities and regulation. By accelerating this uptake, we will push demand for satellite data-based intelligence down through other sectors.
- Leveraging UK strengths in small satellite manufacture for new constellations. With companies such as AAC Clyde, Open Cosmos, and SSTL, we have shown that Britain can build valuable businesses in small satellite fleets for applications such as weather, video, IR, RF sensing, and with new opportunities in IoT, and Quantum communications. All these have strong potential for export growth too as operators expand these applications globally.
Starting today, with first systems onstream from 2030 – we need to stimulate the development of next generation services to create an in-orbit economy.
Leveraging growing skills and expertise in robotics, AI, power and propulsion, and manufacturing we can start to assemble and construct in space, and create new services from this infrastructure. This will enable next generation offerings such as massive telescopes for high resolution persistent observation or massive antennae for direct to mobile communications. Fractionated constellations that can give hugely better performance, resilience, and redundancy can also be imagined in both observation and communications. New materials can be manufactured in the microgravity environment that will deliver benefits on Earth, from new therapies to advanced materials. Space based solar power, requiring kilometre scale structures in space, can become a major UK offering, and make a major contribution to delivering Net Zero. Building companies in these areas also bring supply chains and value chains to the UK which can enable future export.
To be able to realise some of the major opportunities above, for which development would start from 2025, we need to develop underpinning capability in proximity robotic operations now. This is the core skill that the UK needs to develop in order to deliver next generation services. With a large proportion of start-ups in the area of in-orbit servicing (IOS) and debris removal, and OneWeb based in the UK we can build excellence in these areas to grow the skills to support these for the long term. Compared with other opportunities, the IOS opportunity is commercially viable but not large. However, there are political and sustainability drivers that make it important to shape this sector. Importantly, IOS serves as a launch pad for the wider in-orbit ecosystem, forming the basis for other longer-term commercial offers worth £10Bns.
To achieve the above we will need to:
- Develop a long-term plan for In-Orbit Servicing and Manufacturing (IOSM) between Government, industry, and academia, championed by the National Space Council. This will draw on Government investment in the short term, but transition to the commercial sector as opportunities develop. A long-term plan will pull industry investment for major initiatives, like Space Based Solar Power to the UK.
- Influence standards, policy, demand, and technology to enable next-gen satellite services. Consolidate leadership in policy and regulation for space sustainability, debris removal, and proximity operations. This is an area where progress lags potential. A visible, fast moving UK programme, including regulatory innovation where the UK has clear strengths, will help to raise the profile of the UK as the country that can enable these advances and attract inward investment and economic growth, as well as protecting first mover advantage to some level.
- Bring other sectors, such as energy, health, robotics and AI toward the space sector, stimulating R&D to advance research concepts in areas such as future satellite constellations, space energy and drug discovery in microgravity, to make them commercial realities. We need to start to build demand from today. Developments in space need to be earth centric and deliver benefits to the planet. Significant government investment will be needed but investing in ways that will open up demand and a commercial future, can enable growth outside just continued government investment.
- Ensure government spending is used intelligently for market and technology development – with the Government acting as the ‘anchor customer’ for some key developments, we can develop new industries faster and use cross-Government collaborations to shape UK missions for the benefit of the whole sector.
- Use the UK’s launch sector to adopt an iterative approach to creating both a factory in space (for materials and manufacturing developments) and a staging post in Low Earth Orbit – to enable training, autonomous robotic operations, and assembly of ambitious new space infrastructure. With growing UK expertise in robotic operations and in propulsion, power, and logistics in space, this will enable the UK to develop concepts quickly and iteratively and create a leading exportable industry.
- Unlock the UK finance sector to support investment in infrastructure in space. This will enable and support the valuable space infrastructure businesses that will be cornerstones as space becomes a trillion-dollar economy.
- Develop International partnerships but control key components – International partnership is a great opportunity in some of these ambitious areas. We need to make shrewd choices for the delivery of these developments: make or control some key elements; create modular architectures, and “open” interfaces to facilitate complementors but protect UK technology; and build an ecosystem through cooperation and assistance.
This is about re-imagining the space sector for long-term growth and value creation. We have good foundations in the UK. The UK can be a winner if it can build on its strengths and create regulatory leadership and advantage, awaken the potential of the UK financial sector, and take a commercially focussed application-driven approach that builds capability and knowledge more quickly than others can through innovative and incremental approaches.