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The race to conquer space

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  • Publish date: 23 February 2017
  • Archived on: 23 February 2018

Major Tim Peake’s stint on the International Space Station gripped the nation, but the UK space sector has been growing for a while. Since 2000 the industry has trebled in size. Across the country, a dozen space companies have expanded their presence and one area, Harwell, has become a European centre of excellence. When the government published its industrial strategy green paper in January, the space sector was part of it. Jason Sinclair explores the ambitious targets for the sector, and the opportunities to boldly finance British innovation.

This year marks the 60th anniversary of Sputnik 1. The 58cm-diameter Russian satellite was the first to orbit Earth, and sparked the start of the US-Russian space race. Last year there were 1,419 operational satellites orbiting the planet, as identified by the UN Office for Outer Space Affairs. About half of US satellites are government or military, the other half commercial.

It is the ever-expanding applications of satellite information back here on Earth that has fuelled the rockets launching the satellites. Today the average person in the UK interacts with satellites 30 times a day. Within the next four years this figure is forecast to reach 300 – by the end of the decade it could reach 3,000.

“Imagine a day without space,” says Katherine Courtney, CEO of the UK Space Agency (UKSA). “Your phone, satnav, emergency services, weather forecasting and the time signal that determines whether the London Stock Exchange trade went through a second before or a second after the market closed – all those things would not function if, inadvertently or intentionally, satellites were knocked out. Then you’d begin to see how important the space sector is to all of us.”

UK in space

It might be gilding the lily to describe the UK’s performance in the space sector as ‘out of this world’, but it certainly punches above its weight. According to The Size & Health of the UK Space Industry (2016) produced by London Economics for the UK Space Industry, Britain represents 6.5% of the global space economy, generating an income of £13.7bn. The UKSA has set a target to reach 10% of the market by 2030, and it’s a growing market. “It’s good that this sector has that degree of ambition,” says Courtney.

It is the kind of ambition the government is also aware of, having made space a prominent topic in its recently announced industrial strategy. “It is a fascinating area to be involved in,” says Fieldfisher partner John Worthy, who has 20 years’ experience advising on space technology deals. “Being based in the UK is an advantage, when there are so many exciting and innovative space companies that are coming along on this side of the Atlantic, and having sources of funding and advisors who are close at hand.”

When it comes to space technology, there are three areas that have been seeing very significant growth, says Worthy: “First, there are small satellites. The UK has a couple of leading players in that subsector already. Second is launch capability, and the UK’s plan to establish a spaceport capability over the next few years is significant.”

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