Why does the UK need a strong space sector?8th Jul 2022
According to the Size and Health of the UK Space Industry 2021 report, over the past decade, 145 investors invested around £6 billion in 38 space companies in the UK. From this amount, over 70% went to British-Indian OneWeb, invested by the UK government among others.
But even despite the largest investment in this satellite connectivity service provider, the total volume of investments in the UK space industry has been growing. From two investments in 2012 to 18 in 2021, and from one investor to 51 recently, the industry is following a strong upward trend. On average, UK-based space start-ups received around £67 million as investments.
Such an investment trend is very welcome by the maturing British space industry. And it goes in line with the UK government’s aim to capture 10% of the global space economy for the country by 2030. But do we really need a strong UK space sector, or is it just for pursuing trends?
Space is a vital and high-value sector for the UK
After the second world war, Great Britain at least initially had ambitions to compete with the United States and the Soviet Union. The country was the third to launch a satellite in 1962, albeit using an American rocket. It wouldn’t be until 1971 when they launched their first and only satellite using a domestically developed rocket, the Black Arrow.
While the UK space sector continued developing with satellite technology, no further efforts were made to build launch vehicles or launch satellites. Until now. In May of last year, Grant Shapps, the U.K.’s Transport Secretary, announced that rockets will be able to launch from the isles in 2022. Spaceports are currently planned to open in Cornwall, Scotland, and Wales, bringing a bunch of new opportunities for the UK.
And the ambitions don’t end there, as he laid out a very clear goal: “This is a pivotal moment for our space flight ambitions. Since the start of the space flight program in 2017, we have been clear that we want to be the first country to launch into orbit from Europe”, Shapps states.
But numbers can say more than the words. The space sector is a major contributor to the UK’s economy, being valued recently at around £14.8 billion a year.
Why does the UK need to strengthen its space activities?
For those who aren’t paying attention, it might seem like space is something far removed from our everyday lives. The charge is that massive spending is going into, at best, theoretical and abstract scientific discoveries. At worst, it is all about prestige and vanity.
But things have changed since the days of the lunar landings. Technological advancements and commercial initiatives have brought costs down and increased the number of utilities. Here are a few examples:
A key concern to the UK and the world in general at this point is climate change. This headline-making issue threatens ecosystems and communities alike. And here satellites play a crucial role. On one hand space systems help by providing data for predicting natural disasters. Analysts can then recommend decisions to prevent human suffering and economic damage. In a proactive context, they help decision-makers identify and reduce carbon emissions.
Improving our everyday lives
It might seem like it, but space-based technologies are already part of our society. Satellites play a key role in traffic management, farming, and agriculture. It’s also important for our energy infrastructure. For example, in Scotland satellites are used to position wind farms to optimize power to offshore oil and gas installations. As the auto industry produces autonomous vehicles and urban planners create smart cities, satellite technologies will play a role there. They’ve even mitigated the effects of Covid-19 with social distancing apps and allowing people to work from home.
Millions of jobs across the UK are dependent on satellite data and communications, as well as £300 billion of output. 90% of this output is dependent on data from foreign satellites. This figure is likely to grow even more as the UK falls further behind. And that’s not even to mention the public sector, including healthcare, security, and military functions. Disruptions in this data stream could cause damages worth £1 billion.
The bottom line
The most obvious reason for the UK to increase its presence in space is of course money. Long gone are the days when space was a costly vanity project, it has since become a highly lucrative business. In fact, space has a turnover of $350 billion. That’s a staggering number that,according to Morgan Stanley, is likely to increase to $1.4 trillion in 2040. It would be foolish for the UK to forfeit its piece of that proverbial pie. The UK is already seeing a return on investment of £2.57 for every £1 invested.
So far we’ve mentioned current uses for space, but there are utilities that are more obviously “high-tech”. Human space travel is seeing a resurgence. Beyond plans to visit the moon and mars, many businesses are investing in ventures that entail civilians in space. Companies such as Virgin Galactic envision space planes as a means for international travel, to transport people to anywhere in the world in less than an hour. Russia has recently recorded the first feature film on location in space, titled ‘Vyzov’ or ‘The Challenge’ and Tom Cruise is set to record an action movie in space relatively soon. Films aren’t the only form of culture that could benefit from microgravity: Space Entertainment Enterprise will ad an entertainment studio module to the International Space Station by 2024, a module purpose-built for the recording of music, film, and sports events.
Obstacles on the way to becoming Galactic Britain
As of right now, the UK government spends a smaller portion of the country’s GDP on space than its nearest competitors such as France and Germany. The UK Space Agency has an annual budget of £500 million, around a third that of France’s equivalent, and less than half as much as Germany’s. The national market doesn’t support many of the key players. In fact, Skyrora is one of few UK startups which has already been able to demonstrate its ability to launch a rocket and is waiting for a license for its following launch.
Without the will or the means to expand and keep pace with the rest of the world, the UK will not only miss out on its fair share of a sizeable market but be even more critically dependent on other countries’ space infrastructure and data. Not only is that detrimental, but potentially even dangerous for national security and the economy.
Capturing 10% of the world’s space economy is realistic, but simultaneously demanding. Our sovereign abilities in space are as of right now being held back by restraints. This will build our economic and security resilience and allow the UK industry to capture more global market share for UK job creation.