For more than half a century the British let others take the lead in space. From the 1970s onwards we abandoned our then advanced role in rocketry and space engineering and sat back to watch the Americans, Russians, French, and latterly the Chinese take up the strain. The UK never lost its missile and satellite skills but to all extents and purposes it disappeared from the world’s mainstream space industry.
To this day the UK is the only nation in the world to have developed the technology to launch a home built satellite successfully into space on a home built rocket … and then abandoned the technology altogether.
The result is that, today, universities and advanced engineering and software companies in Japan, India, and even the UAE can benefit from experience and knowledge derived from advanced domestic space programmes. The UAE has recently placed a small satellite around Mars – a major achievement for its scientists and a massive boost to its high-tech industrial ambitions. The Indians have developed a wide-ranging and advanced space programme which is looking to put people into orbit and robots on the Moon and Mars. Japan has pulled off one of the most incredible technological feats by exploring an asteroid and returning samples of it to Earth.
These are not just high-cost geeky science experiments which benefit no-one but a few highbrow scientists. They are major scientific and engineering triumphs which bring tangible and measurable benefits to companies, universities, and skills, that deliver advances in software and design, in robotics and artificial intelligence, in engineering and high-tech propulsion. The spin-offs into the wider economy and down the supply chain are profound.
The European Space Agency did a study a few years ago which showed that the space sector now underpins anything from 40% to 60% of all economic activity. If that sounds somewhat excessive just give a little thought to how much we all depend these days on GPS systems, on satellite entertainment systems, on accurate weather forecasts, on space monitoring of crops and water supplies, and on the global satellite links that make the entire financial system operate not to mention how much we may end up depending on space for autonomous transport systems.
Okay, so how is the UK now getting back in the saddle after such a lengthy hiatus?
The process – once slow and almost imperceptible – has recently sped up. Baby steps are being transformed with judicious government interventions into small strides and there are signs of definite progress. Not only has the UK space sector emerged as an important economic player but it is looking set to drag a lot of associated activity and sectors along on its coat tails. The most recent figures show the sector turning over a very respectable £15bn per year. That’s more than the computer and electronics sector and not far behind the pharmaceuticals industry. The UK government contributes reasonably large amounts to the work of the European Space Agency (which is NOT an EU body) and British companies are therefore benefitting from involvement in a range of high profile ESA projects including the upcoming ExoMars mission. The UK Space Agency is collaborating with NASA on two very exciting future missions – the Artemis mission to place humans on the Moon again, and the Lunar Gateway which is designed to support both Lunar and Mars missions in the future. Perhaps more importantly British companies of all sizes are actually leading the way in near-Earth space endeavours. Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd (SSTL) and Clyde Space are global leaders in different types of satellite construction, and a whole host of business are getting into the Earth monitoring business and developing clever ways to help people on the ground. In February 2021 the British government announced that it had signed a crucial “space bridge” agreement with Australia which will quickly begin to leverage collaboration on space technology between the two nations.
Huge companies like Rolls Royce, BAe, and Inmarsat along with the British subsidiaries of overseas companies like Thales-Alenia and Airbus are powering a significant extension of space-directed commercial activity in the UK. And the UK is even getting back into rocketry. The islands of Britain are not well placed for equatorial satellite orbits but the extreme north is very well suited to launching small polar orbiting satellites which bring with them significant advantages. As electronics has developed to allow us to build smaller and smaller pieces of kit so the benefits of polar orbits and cube-sats have expanded and British and UK-based companies have elbowed their way into the satellite-launch race. Lockheed, Orbex, and Skyrora all have small launchers now in late development which they are planning to launch from the far north of the UK. Lockheed is hoping to be the first – sometime in 2021.
Virgin Orbit has already achieved a world-first by launching satellites from an aircraft using a small rocket called Launcher One. The potential for Virgin’s 747-launched rockets is enormous given that the demand for smaller satellites is going through the roof.
Britain has two spaceports in view for vertical launches of smaller rockets – both in Scotland – and two or three spaceports for aircraft-launched rockets. The front-runner is at Newquay in Cornwall which is also being slated as a potential spaceport for Virgin Galactic’s sub-orbital passenger flights.
Satellite swarms are all the rage these days. Elon Musk’s Skylink project is already placing thousands of tiny satellites in orbit in order to deliver global broadband from the sky. At the same time OneWeb – a company now effectively jointly owned by the British government and an Indian company – is placing its own swarm into orbit to offer a competing product. These communication swarms are set to revolutionise broadband.
At the cutting edge are companies like Reaction Engines and Pulsar Fusion. The former is making good progress towards the holy grail of space-launch systems – the so-called single-stage-to-orbit (SSTO) market. SSTO has been a dream for seventy years: a spacecraft that can reach orbit without having to use multiple stages of separately powered rocket engines. The Sabre™ engine from Reaction Engines still lies on the edge of possibility but the technology is almost there. The engine would breathe air and perform as a jet engine for the first part of the flight and would then become a rocket to reach orbit. It could then return to Earth for a normal landing and be reused just like an aircraft.
Pulsar Fusion is right at the very boundary of the current “cutting edge”. Its focus is fusion power (which technology is slowly becoming a mainstream possibility) but it also has interests in high temperature superconductors and a fusion rocket engine that can be used in outer space to power tugs and long-distance space missions.
Alongside all of these exciting developments the UK is building a major eco-system of smaller, fast growing companies that are developing increasingly clever ways of using and deploying space data – for environmental monitoring, for water conservation, for weather forecasting for farmers, for scientific purposes, and for entertainment.
The upshot is that the UK is very definitely back in the space business and its young people now have a genuine chance to get deeply involved in the most exciting opportunity to be presented to humanity in centuries. There are immense implications for the importance of STEM education but even more so for the responsibility of parents, teachers, and lecturers to convey the opportunities and help their charges to see what they might do if they want to follow the path to space.
One of perhaps the least-well-known of British space institutions is the British Interplanetary Society. The BIS has been at the forefront of space thought-leadership since 1933 and is the oldest space-advocacy organisation in the world. Today it is an influential power in global approaches to the uses of space. If young people and their parents and teachers want to keep up with what is happening in space they could do worse than joining the BIS (https://www.bis-space.com).
Space is not the final frontier and it is not for everyone, but it is certainly the next frontier and the UK is in a prime position to give its young people an opportunity to be involved in every step of the way. STEM education is at the heart of the drive and the very recent launch of the Level 4 Space Engineering Technician Apprenticeship is another of those small but vital steps.
The future is space and, for the UK’s young people, one could think of no better motto than that of the Royal Air Force – Per Ardua ad Astra – through effort to the stars!
Posted on 4th March 2021.