The UK’s Space Strategy Casts the Nation as a Rising Space Super Power
The United Kingdom’s National Space Strategy sets direction for its burgeoning space tech players as the kingdom readies for a transformative year. 2022 will see the revival of its historic heritage in launch technology combine with present-day strengths
November 19, 2021
It’s a solid vote of confidence. The United Kingdom’s National Space Strategy is an endorsement of the homegrown innovators in the sector. It puts into focus two things: The United Kingdom has clout to compete enough to have space become a major pillar of the future economy, and many are not well aware of said clout. Long-awaited, this strategy forms the guidance needed to help the kingdom on its way up to fulfill its space leadership ambitions.
The country is at the cusp of space tech proliferation and is expanding expertise across the value chain. The nation is able to flex its prowess not merely in manufacturing, for which it is arguably a recognized player, but for its domestic launch capabilities that not only come with unprecedented regulations that foster sustainability and ethics, but also form a catalyst of next-generation services and commercial entities. This, in concert with the European space industry cornerstones like Inmarsat (even after the stunning news involving Viasat recently), Airbus, and OneWeb, earn the United Kingdom a pedigree worthy of turning a few heads.
This national strategy’s announcement is opportune, commercial players in the country say. Entities that have begun gaining traction can benefit from its strategic guidance, while those looking to join the fray with other ambitious market entrants can lean on it for direction. Its timing also coincides with an influx of investor spending.
“With investor interest driving momentum in the wider industry, barely a week goes by without a new space tech startup receiving substantial funding. Milestone launches for the space tourism businesses have put spaceflight squarely back in the spotlight. The government's publication of the U.K.’s first National Space Strategy is well-timed,” says Volodymyr Levykin, founder and CEO of Skyrora, an Edinburgh-based specialist in modular launch vehicles for the burgeoning smallsat market.
Boris Johnson’s Galactic Britain
The national space strategy must be followed by action. The government must work closely with the industry in order to operationalize the transformation into Boris Johnson’s “Galactic Britain.” With a continued productive dialogue between government and industry, and the combined support of public and private investment, the U.K. can exceed expectations, says Levykin.
“With the quality and amount of innovation taking place in the U.K. space sector, there’s no reason to think that we can’t aim higher as we look to build on the breakthrough moments to come next year. Keep watching the skies,” says Levykin.
Breakthrough moments include demonstration of sovereign launch capabilities. The U.K. is gearing up for domestic launches of homegrown rockets carrying payloads that will lay the foundation for future-ready services. Skyrora itself aims to achieve the first-ever launch of a U.K.-made rocket from the kingdom’s soil in 2022.
“I believe space is on the brink of achieving its ‘internet moment.’ The 2020s will be the tipping point after which space technologies become ubiquitous as the foundation of services we all use every day,” says Levykin. “In particular, 2022 should be a transformative year for the U.K. space sector, as the revival of its historic heritage in launch technology combines with present-day leadership in satellite and sensor technology to deliver the full package, and catapult the U.K. into the top tier of global space nations.”
From a Spaceport to a Space Cluster
The benefits of achieving sovereign launch capabilities far surpass status including, new businesses and a boost to the job market.
This is what is currently developing in Cornwall, where the Cornwall Council, Virgin Orbit, and Goonhilly Earth Station will be delivering the U.K.’s first satellite launch spaceport from Cornwall Airport Newquay in July 2022. It will see the build of a satellite integration facility hub site, which will have a Center for Space Technologies adjacent to it. There will be R&D facilities and workspaces for easier access for academia and small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). While launching Virgin Orbit earns attention and news headlines, Spaceport Cornwall looks at the bigger picture, and is using launch as a catalyst to attract other business to the area.
“This is really important for us,” says Melissa Thorpe, head of Spaceport Cornwall. “While Virgin is here the focus is on it, but what when it leaves? We want to ensure we are utilizing our assets and resources as best as possible. SMEs and academia having this easier access is a game changer, they’d probably never have as easy access or even any at all otherwise.”
Looking ahead, this space cluster can support the design and build of satellites. Then they can be launched, and tracked and monitored, too. This data coming back down to Goonhilly Earth Station can stoke an array of downstream satellite application companies in Cornwall; universities and private entities are able to come together and make great things happen.
A Global Leader
Environmental responsibility and ethics are also important to Spaceport Cornwall, and they are mentioned thoroughly in the national strategy. Thorpe sees the U.K. taking a leadership role here. While Spaceport Cornwall fully believes in space helping to tackle climate change and some of Earth’s biggest problems, it’s perturbed that getting to space is not eco-friendly. There is a big role for spaceports to start playing to get these technologies to space in a more environmentally and socially sustainable way.
“We don’t just want to get this right in Cornwall, but to challenge other spaceports around the world to do that same. Sustainability and responsibility make a fundamental core of why we’re doing what we’re doing in Cornwall. For me, it’s about looking at how the U.K. can be a global leader in sustainability in space and looking at ways that we can responsibly get to space. The regulations we’re setting for launch will prove invaluable in other areas, and help us take a big leadership role. The U.K. has a huge role to play and I think we’ll prove this is areas such as sustainability, diplomacy in space and space law,” says Thorpe.
The launch program has been built from scratch and not only are regulations and legislation being built into it, but also the expectation on the spaceports as well as the launch operators to abide by these, including things like assessments of environmental effects.
“The way launch regulation is being set up is unique and a U.K. strength. Even on the domestic front, people are surprised to learn about the U.K.’s space capabilities. I believe that sometimes there is a need to shout about what you’re doing. It’s incredible what’s going on here! We’ve got these niche areas that no one else in the world is doing. I believe the national strategy recognizes this and looks to enhance and support it through new innovations. We may not become the biggest space player in the world, but there are parts that we’re doing here that will lead to the U.K. reaching ambitious goals,” says Thorpe.
Smallsat Market, Space-Based Solar Power, and More
Fully believing that the space industry has the ability to drive economic growth, productivity, innovation and job creation over the coming years, Orbex CEO Chris Larmour says the company is already working with the U.K. government and other partners to meet many of the strategy’s objectives. The company’s number one goal is to capture the European smallsat launch market while focusing on environmental sustainability and space technology innovation.
The company’s Prime rocket is a low-carbon micro-launch vehicles that will launch from the Space Hub Sutherland spaceport in Scotland, which Larmour says is the only U.K. spaceport to receive planning permission. “Orbex is working with its partners to place a new generation of smallsats into orbit, enabling services such as Earth Observation and internet connectivity,” he says.
Stuart Martin, CEO at Satellite Applications Catapult says the new strategy gives a good sense of the government’s ambition and vision and highlights some of the big opportunities.
“There are some really good things in there. I think space-based solar power is a big thing to aim for. The great thing about it is that there are many other capabilities that need to develop in order to realize this, which leads to additional benefits in turn. This means the realization of things such as in-orbit servicing and manufacture, robotic construction in space, and the ability to build big infrastructure in space, which we don’t have at the moment. Then we need to ask what else will be possible after we’ve achieved this,” he says.
While the strategy does not mention things, other countries may be working toward, such as asteroid mining, for example, it does move forward the technologies needed to make such things possible. In realizing the new capabilities and innovations needed for some of the strategy’s big mission items, the U.K. can draw from its many strengths, notably in its coverage of the communications supply chain and in manufacturing, where the processes themselves are changing with the Fourth Industrial Revolution and the rise of mass production for Low-Earth Orbit (LEO).
“Bringing in these new processing methods and approaches is something that the U.K. is very strong in. It will give further advancement to these manufacturing companies, and then help us develop our capabilities for in-orbit assembly and then later in-orbit manufacturing. We will then be looking at how potentially to use space debris as a raw material for future manufacturing processes. We don’t want to waste unnecessary cost getting materials to space that are already there and can be recycled. This moves towards a more circular space economy and drives overall sustainability,” says Martin.
Of course, a lot has to happen to get there; sustainable growth is required, and the market needs to develop, none of which is possible without customers. Here, the government needs to play a vital role, the shape of which is suggested in the national strategy. The government needs to transform from a technology funder to a well-informed and early customer that helps the market develop. It also needs to work with businesses outside of the space sector to make known the benefits to be had via adoption of space technology. It’s not just about supporting the technology development; support of market growth, technology adoption and diffusion across the market is paramount.
“I can see all sorts of opportunities ahead. With all the smart people that we have in the U.K. along with all the smart people that we have across the world, we are going to come together to make great things happen,” concludes Martin.
Scotland’s Vaulting Ambitions
Just weeks after the U.K. published its first National Space Strategy, Scotland unveiled its own ambitious starry plans. Its new strategy aims to claim a share of the global space market worth 4 billion pounds, nearly $5.5 billion, for the Scottish economy. It also intends to create some 20,000 jobs in the space sector by 2030.
The culmination of interests and visions of the Scottish government and its enterprise agencies, industry group Space Scotland and the Scottish Space Academic Forum, the strategy will pursue environmentally sustainable technologies and a network of satellite launch sites – with dedicated launch capabilities demonstrated as early as next year – while building on the nation’s leadership in data analysis and research.
“The Scottish Space Strategy demonstrates the determination of our space community to work together to deliver this ambitious agenda. We will broaden the diversity of the sector, increase its sustainability, exports and inward investment, and enhance education to inspire the next generation of space industry workers. The potential for the sector is enormous. Our targets are similarly ambitious and I am confident we can achieve them,” said Ivan McKee, Minister for Business, Trade, Tourism and Enterprise.
The strategy follows on from a decade of development and growth within the space sector, which has resulted in the country fostering a young, dynamic community of space companies. Following its framework for growth to take the Scottish space sector to the next level, Scotland would play an end-to-end space system provider role in the rapidly expanding global market. With an established range of managed launch and orbital services, Scotland aims to support Europe’s largest launch capabilities.
In tune with the U.K. National Space Strategy, the Scottish edition focuses on the need for green technologies and practices. It outlines plans to develop a world-leading environmental strategy for Scotland’s space industry, from reducing emissions to supporting the use of satellite data for environmental monitoring.
With the proliferation of strategies being announced, it does seem like the U.K. is on its way out of the pandemic and many are keenly watching to see what next year brings. Will it be something of a rebirth? Will we have a new reason to be watching the skies? And will Scotland become a global leader for commercial space developments? VS