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Reimagining Space: The UK Space Industry Today

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In this blog, the latest in our ‘Reimagining Space’ series, we look at the global influence of UK space innovation and the challenges the sector needs to overcome to drive future growth.

Over the past twenty years, the UK space sector has tripled in size and today, underpins £300bn or 15% of activity across the economy. However,  for a long time, the sector was a well-kept secret: few people knew we had a space industry – let alone one that was commercially successful on a global scale.

As home to the world-leader in global mobile satellite communications and birthplace of the small satellite, Britain has played a pivotal role in transforming the commercial space landscape, enabling multiple industries, as well as Government, to exploit the benefits of being in orbit. Today, the sector directly contributes £14.8Bn to our economy, including £5.5Bn from exports – equivalent to 5.1% of the global space economy. The UK Space Agency and the Satellite Applications Catapult, and others, have helped enable this success,  championing the economic and social value of space, and fostering ever more productive links between industry, academia and the public sector.

The exponential growth of space-enabled data and the space economy continue to offer a major opportunity for the UK.  Having taken an early lead in the potential of small satellites to deliver global monitoring capabilities (combined with space-based location and communications capabilities) we now have a vibrant and internationally respected satellite applications community.

Britain also has a strong upstream sector which is embracing the opportunities provided by rocket launches from UK soil, developments in AI for robotic on-orbit operations, and small satellites, all of which are helping to do things differently, faster and better.  We have led the world in innovative, low cost approaches to space that enable both iterative development and financing in ways beyond pure government intervention.

A dramatic shift in the space finance landscape has enabled much of this growth – with a new breed of space entrepreneurs democratising access to space by offering new, cost-effective opportunities to launch fleets of low-cost spacecraft.  Over the past 10 years, private investment in the space economy has grown from almost zero to the position today, where 1,000s of space companies are raising $150Bn of equity investment. The UK accounts for 6% of total global space investment, second only to the US.

It is still the case that much of the value derived from the UK space sector comes from a small number of multinationals, typically aerospace companies, and a large number of very small specialist and start-up companies. The UK has a good track-record for creating start-ups:   we have developed an attractive regulatory and policy environment which, when combined with the right skills, is attracting companies in new sectors such as in-orbit servicing and greenhouse gas emissions monitoring. But there are few self-sustaining medium sized companies, very little dedicated, long term capital, and almost no exemplar entrepreneurs.  We need to see businesses scale to fill this gap.

A decade ago, the UK’s commercial space community set itself a target to deliver a £40Bn sector by 2030, and we’ve made good progress;  to reach this target, however, the sector will need a much more rounded space industry ecosystem than we have now.  Across all areas of UK space, there is a need for both the growth of existing companies and the emergence of new entrants to enrich the business ecosystem and strengthen domestic supply chains.

As we look forward, the country is recognising the critical role space plays in supporting international partnerships, security, economic growth, levelling up and sustainability objectives.  The UK Government has recently demonstrated the strength of its commitment to the UK’s role in space through the creation of a National Space Council, and its participation in the purchase of OneWeb.  Not only will this establish a new major player in the sector, it can also position the UK as a leader in advanced satellite manufacture, delivering connectivity and positioning services and strengthening the UK supply chain.

The UK presidency of COP26 presents an opportunity to demonstrate our expertise in data science, climate science, remote sensing and artificial intelligence to deliver total planet health-checks and the evidence base for global emissions reductions targets.  But, as the UK moves beyond applications of geospatial intelligence, to explore advanced space robotics and launch capabilities, we need to be bold in our approach.

With the upcoming publication of the UK Space Strategy, we have the opportunity to bring the needs of a range of stakeholders together into a compelling vision of how space can propel the UK in beneficial new directions.