By Stuart Martin, CEO, Satellite Applications Catapult
Since taking up my role at the Satellite Applications Catapult, I have been asked many times to talk about the changes that are happening in the space sector world-wide, and the opportunity that this creates for the UK. This question is usually put quite simply: Why have we created a Catapult in Satellite Applications?
My response to this question has changed over time, as it has become increasingly clear that the nature, scale and pace of change that we are now seeing is far more significant than even I had foreseen in my most optimistic moments just two years ago. The explosion in CubeSat activity, and confirmation of Google’s much-rumoured entry into the sector, with the acquisition of SkyBox, being just two very recent examples of a major shift which points to more of a global ‘revolution’, rather than simple ‘evolution’ of this fast growing sector. To understand the full significance of all this, we need to look back at history.
The ‘Space Age’, as we all know it, began in 1957 with the launch of the first Sputnik. The Cold War already well underway, this one act provided the Soviet Union a very visible demonstration of technology advantage, and for the next 30 years space was the public arena for the battle of ideology between east and west, as well as an essential component of the intelligence battle going on behind the scenes to prevent the ‘cold’ war becoming a ‘hot’ war. This state-fuelled ideologically driven period saw tremendous developments in space capability, witnessed most obviously by the success of the Apollo programme, reusable spacecraft (e.g the Space Shuttle), and the first space stations (Salyut, Almaz and Skylab).
Figure 1: Sputnik-1, launched October 4th 1957
Towards the latter part of the Cold War, governments started working more collaboratively on space projects, both as part of the political thawing process, and also as a way sharing the growing costs. But space retained its status as public demonstration of technology advancement, and hence a proxy for power, and it remained an elite few nations who could participate in these largely politically driven initiatives. It was also at this time that governments and businesses began making more practical use of the new technology, in areas like telecommunications, TV broadcast, meteorology and science. This was also the period in which the NAVSTAR-GPS system was developed, and whilst the next 20 years saw huge growth in the commercial exploitation of space, particularly in the area of communications and broadcast, much of the technology development continued to rely on state support – either through public-funded research & development, or military procurements.
At this point, it’s interesting to look at how the UK fits into the picture. Britain was the third country, after the US and Soviet Union, to have a satellite in Orbit: Ariel-1, helpfully placed in orbit by a US launcher in April 1962 – and rather less helpfully rendered useless by a US high-altitude nuclear test three months later. We also provided much of the early European capability, in both launchers and satellites, and in Roy Gibson, the first Director General for the European Space Agency (ESA), on its establishment in 1975. However, and most crucially, the UK was the first major space nation to reject the notion of space as a political tool, and to pull back from the international collaborations, when it decided to withdraw from all government-backed manned spaceflight activities, and also launcher developments in the late 1980’s. This resulted in an immediate reduction in the UK space budget, and a refocussing of what remained on practical applications and science. Whatever you think of that decision, and there have undoubtedly been negative consequences, it is clear that this decision is probably the main reason the UK now boasts world-leading capability in areas such as satellite communications, space-based science, and small satellites – all of which are vital to the growth opportunities we see today, and so has created a tremendous platform to build from.
So what is it that’s changing now, and why? Looking back, it does seem that the period around 2007, appropriately the 50th anniversary of Sputnik-1, was something of a turning point.
First of all, the iPhone was launched. Suddenly, the mobile internet was useful, and a device existed that combined power of satellite positioning, with Graphical Information Systems (GIS) and cameras in a practically infinitely flexible way. The long-awaited ‘killer app’ for satellite navigation arrived overnight and took the whole sector by surprise – it was actually a ‘killer app store’. These days, over 70% of smart phone apps have a location-enabled element.
Figure 2: Combining technology to utilise satellite data
Secondly, following its launch in 2005, Google Earth broke through into public consciousness this year, with total downloads in the hundreds of millions. This gave a new population a taste of what could be possible with earth imagery, and inspired countless new applications for satellites which we now see starting to emerge.
Another important event, again 2007, was the launch of the WorldView-1 satellite by Digital Globe, which opened up access to and a taste for half-metre resolution imagery to the commercial market for the first time. And following a launch failure a year earlier, 2007 saw the first significant multiple launch of CubeSats as secondary payloads on a Dnepr rocket.
But perhaps the most significant event of 2007 was the start of the financial crisis. The Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act of 2004 had already signalled NASA’s intent to transfer routine launches into low-earth orbit (including supplying the international space station) to the private sector, allowing companies like SpaceX and others to move into this space. This then enabled the Constellation Programme, started in 2005, to focus on a new grand vision for NASA, for new launcher capability, and aspiration for wider manned exploration, thus continuing the tradition of Apollo and the Shuttle before. However, over the years an increasing part of this tradition had become about maintaining large workforces, and over-complex supply chains, driven more by the politics of national government, than scientific or engineering endeavour. Increasingly, this system of operation was becoming unsustainable, and the voices of criticism grew louder. Furthermore, the sheer numbers involved of doing space in this way reinforced a global sense that it was the preserve of large, government-backed activities, which discouraged fresh thinking. But the financial crisis finally created the environment to tackle this situation, and this is exactly what happened, in two steps:
- Firstly, in 2007, a planned retirement date of 2010 for the space shuttle was announced, which got people used to the idea there would be a gap between the end of the shuttle, and the Constellation Program being able to deliver any equivalent replacement capability. (In the end, the last shuttle flight was in 2011).
- Secondly, in 2009, the Constellation Program itself was cancelled, and NASA began a fundamental rethink about the way it operated, with a much reduced budget.
So suddenly you have the convergence of three factors:
- New technologies that make space technologies accessible and useful in a way they never have been before (launchers, CubeSats, smart phones, and I’ll add high-speed internet and cloud computing too, for good measure).
- New awareness being created in the mass market, of the sorts of things that space technology can do (via Google Earth and smart phones).
- The reinvention of NASA, the largest, and highest profile spender on civil space projects, causing the industry that relied on it to fundamentally rethink the way they addressed the sector, and creating opportunities for new entrants.
So the scene was set for revolutionary change, in which the role of the commercial sector would become much more significant, stepping out from the shadow of the state – in perception as well as reality. The sector is in transition. New companies, who see the opportunities of space in a completely different way, are emerging and thriving in areas as diverse as space tourism, and small-sat constellations, and not relying on the state to define the trajectory. A discontinuity is opening up, between the old ways of thinking, and where the growth opportunity is being created, and many of the traditional space companies are struggling to cross it.
Figure 3: The transition to Space 2.0
These are amazing times for the space sector. There is every reason to believe that the first 50 years of the second space age will be just as exciting and inspirational as the first, if not more so, given the added dimension that the pace of change is increasing, and likely to continue so, rather than slowing down, as we’ve seen in the past. It truly is unimaginable, in all practical senses, what we may see in the coming decades.
Organisations who fail to cross the gap from the old to the new will struggle, and not all of them will make it. But the prizes for those that do will be enormous.