Reimagining Space: The Transformation of the Space Sector

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Over the next three months, in a new series of blogs, videos and articles, we will be discussing how the UK space sector has been transformed since we launched in 2013, and share our vision for its future.

We will showcase the dynamism, innovation and commercial success of the UK space sector today, looking at satellite applications, launch, manufacturing and sector finance; we’ll also share the views and expectations of key players to reimagine our understanding of space and better understand its role in shaping – and sustaining – the world of tomorrow.

In this, our first blog, we set the backdrop for our future vision by looking at how the space sector has changed over the past seven years.

The Transformation of the Space Sector

On the 15 November 2020, four astronauts stepped aboard a SpaceX Crew Dragon Capsule, to fly to the International Space Station. This marked the beginning of a new era in which commercial providers would undertake routine astronaut flights. It was also public testament to the huge transformations in science, innovation and enterprise that the space sector had both experienced, and driven, during the previous decade.

In 2013, the year the Satellite Applications Catapult was founded, the sector was very different. If 60 satellites were launched over the course of twelve months, that was considered a ‘big year’. Most satellites expected to be operational for 15+ years. Here in the UK there were few, if any, space start-ups, and virtually no early-stage private finance in the sector.  Satellite communications were generally only used by high-value sectors like defense and maritime and, if you were lucky, reliable revisit times for Earth observation (EO) satellites were monthly.

TV was by far the biggest mainstream application; with the new wave of streaming services placing increasing pressures on traditional satellite broadcast technology. GPS applications on mobile phones were still in their infancy but starting to hint at the potential for location-based commercial services.

Technology miniaturization was starting to become mainstream, combining with advances in manufacturing to trigger a new wave of innovation that made it possible to conceive large constellations of smaller satellites in space. Now thanks to parallel advances in artificial intelligence (AI), the industry has developed in ways that scarcely seemed possible when we first opened our doors.

Planet, a satellite imagery and insight company, now has over 100 EO satellites in orbit, while OneWeb and SpaceX are both planning constellations of more than 40,000 spacecraft.  As the trend moves quickly towards high-capacity, low-latency communications, mega constellations such as these are here to stay, and the services they enable growing in diversity and utility.

Today, the satellite applications market is well established and growing fast, but still far from mature. In both earth observation and communications the opportunities and applications continue to grow, with trends accelerating through the pandemic. Geospatial technologies and data, underpinned by AI, are increasingly underpinning decision-making in both Government and business. 

The satellite communications market is now worth more than $100bn/yr, just as it enters a new and exciting period of reshaping. Analysts such as Goldman Sachs predict the wider space sector will become a multi trillion-dollar market in the next two decades[1]

The combined interest and capability of global government, defence and security and business in space has never been higher[2].  The dependence on space infrastructure for military purposes, resilience and the potential of the sector for economic growth is recognized globally.  The European Union seeks “Strategic Autonomy” in space.  The US is working on its return to the moon, while China is manifesting its own cosmic ambitions with recent lunar landings and talks of an Earth, Moon, Mars economic zone. 

Space related start-ups have now raised over $155Bn since 2013[3].  Investors, businesses and governments are now familiar with satellite applications as viable business propositions, and are actively investing in these as well as space more widely. 

The intelligence and transparency delivered by new, low-cost, global monitoring capabilities will play a vital and increasing role in efforts to addressing the global challenges ahead of us – from energy to climate, food security to health. This will not just involve satellite applications, either.

In parallel, advances in AI and robotics are opening up new technological horizons and fuelling ever bolder ambition: massive new telescopes and antenna; power plants and servers in space; materials and medicines manufactured in orbit; sustainable lunar development.  We are moving into an era where the size of what can be fitted into a rocket is no longer a constraint on what can exist in space. 

Space is changing. What was once the preserve of governments and a handful of major (state funded) space companies, is now a territory that can be accessed by all – with the ability to transform and support every field of industry. This trend will only accelerate. By 2030, industries like construction, energy, tourism and health will all see opportunities in space.  Many already use space services on a daily basis. So, as many firms today now describe their core business as being ‘technology’, whether they sell cars, food or financial products, so, in the not too distant future, will they become ‘space companies’. 

Today, the space sector already contributes over £14.8bn[4] directly to the UK economy, and supports over £300bn from other sectors. The balance continues to shift toward commercial private enterprise, enabled by strong and innovative partnerships between the public and private sectors.

The sign of a mature sector is the strength and breadth of services provided by the businesses that operate within in. Over the past 8 years we have grown from having a small group of highly successful companies, to having a broad, dynamic and diverse ecosystem that encompasses most commercial areas and delivers huge new advantages to society and humanity.

This is our vision and our mission: to help ensure that the UK recognises, and successfully delivers on, the huge opportunities ahead.  It goes so far beyond a traditional view of the satellite sector.  

“Now we are not constrained by the size of what we can put in a rocket, the possibilities of what can we construct in space to benefit earth has grown enormously.  With collaboration, purpose and ambition we are at a point in time where space can have a huge impact on the future of life on earth and provide a platform for commercial private enterprise and purposeful economic growth for centuries to come.”

Stuart Martin, Chief Executive, Satellite Applications Catapult. 

Look out for more blogs, videos, interviews and articles as we explore how the sector is ‘Reimagining Space’.

[1] Space – The Next Investment Frontier, Profiles in Innovation, Goldman Sachs Equity Research, April 2017.

[2] The Apollo era had an enormous importance and profile but funded purely by governments and without a competitive industrial engine behind it the ability to really progress was limited. 

[3] Space Investment Quarterly, Space Capital, Q3 2020

[4] The Size and Health of the UK Space Industry, UK Space Agency, 2018