Inside the UK Space Sector’s Renaissance

In the wake of Brexit, OneWeb’s shakeup, and a pandemic that wreaked havoc on the economy, the United Kingdom is emerging as a space and satellite-industry powerhouse. Even Queen Elizabeth II is intrigued.

Like many of its United Kingdom and United States counterparts, NanoAvionics started out as a group of college students building a satellite in a classroom, with dreams of providing low-cost access to space globally.

Seven years later, the small-satellite mission integrator has completed more than 85 missions and commercial projects and is one of the most buzzworthy technology providers serving the U.K. space sector, with five locations across globe, including Basingstoke in Southern England. In March, the company unveiled an expanded offering of satellite platforms with a larger microsat bus size, the MP42.

“The New Space trend has reinvigorated academics and scientists in the U.K.,” says Edward F. Jamieson, the business development manager at the organization’s U.K. headquarters, speaking of not only NanoAvionics, but its competitors and service providers in England, Scotland, and other parts of the United Kingdom. “They realize that with the right technology they can be part of this renaissance.”

These are noteworthy milestones, considering the roller coaster ride of international events that have transpired since early 2020. Over the last two years, the United Kingdom has experienced immense international shakeups, between the pandemic, Brexit, and OneWeb’s unexpected bankruptcy and salvation by the U.K. government and private investment.

But there’s every reason to continue to feel optimistic, heading into 2022. In recent years, the U.K. has emerged as a hub of space and satellite activity, with significant progress in spacecraft manufacturing, launch, and other capabilities. The government recently reported that the space sector’s growth has fueled creation of more than 3,000 new jobs across the country.

Moreover, says Antonio Rodenas, CEO and co-founder of Bristol, England-based Orbital Wave, the U.K. government is progressing toward an ambitious target proposed by the Space Innovation and Growth Strategy — a joint government, industry and academic initiative — to grow the U.K.’s global share of the space market to reach 10 percent by 2030, where space commercial activities will play a key role to achieve that target.

“These ambitious targets are driving a renaissance moment in the U.K.’s commercial space sector,” says Rodenas. “There is also a renewed interest in space within government which has led to it becoming one of the priority areas within InnovateUK, the U.K.’s innovation agency.”

And in perhaps a more telling sign of the times, Queen Elizabeth II herself recently visited a number of space company headquarters in Scotland, including Spire’s.

Fostering Innovation

Dedi David Haziza, founder and chief architect of SderoTech (formerly Wafer Technologies), says much of the innovation in the U.K. is being driven by the availability of technologies and services at a more accessible price point. The Haifa, Israel-based entrepreneur, whose organization collaborates with U.K.’s OneWeb, Airbus, and others, left Google in 2016 to develop technology that would serve as the foundation for a steerable, low-power phased array antenna that he says is the most cost-effective to date.

Today, the company's wafer-thin, adaptive phase shifter antenna, called NexTenna, enables the tracking of satellites in Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) and ensures data can be transmitted efficiently to end users.

“For LEO constellations to succeed they need to serve 4.5 billion people in the world,” says Haziza. “The biggest challenge for a mega-constellation is capacity, how many users you can serve out of a constellation, and how much money you can make per month.”

Orbital Wave’s Rodenas, meanwhile, says that his organization’s services are helping satellite partners do more with less, through its model of “operations as a service.”

“Currently, most satellite owners perform the operations in-house but with the anticipated growth in the New Space sector, this vertical integration is unsustainable to replicate across each company,” says Rodenas. “The problem each company faces is how to build their operations infrastructure and team cost-effectively and reliably, while avoiding delays due to a lack of expertise. Each is needlessly reinventing the wheel to design an operations system that is unlikely ever to be utilized to its full capacity.”

Orbital Wave’s services are designed to tackle this problem, he continues.

“From the moment the satellite is injected by the launcher into its target orbit until its end of life, we handle all aspects of the satellite operations for the customer, including operations preparation, regulation and data delivery,” says Rodenas.

Shooting for the Moon

Phil Brownnett, managing director of Guildford, U.K.-based Surrey Satellite Technology LTD (SSTL), said 2021 has marked tremendous progress for his organization, which is currently building its Lunar Pathfinder satellite to provide data relay services for both communications and navigation to any lunar asset anywhere on the Moon.

“This mission, in collaboration with ESA, UKSA, and NASA, will provide services from 2024, and is a significant milestone for SSTL in developing and evolving our business,” says Brownnett. “With ESA Moonlight and NASA LunaNet, the world is waking up to the commercialization of lunar communications and navigation services, and SSTL is very pleased to be at the forefront of delivering commercial space services.”

Also, in May, SSTL announced its participation in the United Kingdom-Australia Space Bridge, a program launched earlier this year by the UK Space Agency and Australian Space Agency.

But amid new partnerships and growth opportunities, SSTL and its peers face growing pains, from recruiting the right employees to work on new missions to managing concerns around space traffic.

“Space traffic management is going to be a major challenge over the coming years now that we are seeing more than 1,000 satellites launched every year,” says Brownnett. “This will make space operations more challenging and it will require nations to work together to iterate safe codes of conduct. SSTL has been actively involved in the demonstration of satellite active debris removal missions and the UK will support [these] activities and opportunities.”

Brownnett said he is most excited about developing opportunities in deep space and interplanetary exploration and in “the emphasis on dual use capability between civil and defense.”

“We are excited to be playing a leading part,” says Brownnett. “However, with the influx of commercial interests in space, and the growing space ecosystem of small satellites, there are some unrealistic expectations on price and performance that need to be managed.” VS

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