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Industry bosses urge Britain to get back in the space race

Alan Tovey
British astronaut Tim Peake has been the face of Britain's efforts in space  - Warren Allott Photos

The UK’s space industry has called on the Government  to set up a national programme under its industrial strategy to boost business.

Companies in Britain’s £14bn a year space industry are pushing hard for the programme to form a key plank of the sector deal, which could be announced as soon as next month.

Richard Peckham, chairman of trade body UK Space, said setting up a national space programme would give an extra push to the sector, which aims to expand to £40bn a year by 2030.

“The sector deal would inject more life into the industry, especially by setting up a national programme,” he said. “This is not a Brexit reaction but we could form partnerships with other countries such as India and work on programmes with them.”

Britain is currently a prominent member of the European Space Agency (ESA), and will likely remain part of the body once the UK leaves the European Union. However, unless a trade deal can be worked out, British companies are almost certain to be excluded from working on two of ESA’s biggest projects – the Earth observation system Copernicus and the Galileo GPS programme – because they are funded by EU money.

Development work on the Mars ExoRover was done in the UK at Airbus' Stevenage base Credit: Airbus

British companies are currently heavily involved not just in building satellites for these systems, but also managing the data they generate, work which could be jeopardised by Brexit.

The 2016 Queen’s Speech made space a priority, opening up the prospect of Britain regaining the ability to launch into orbit with the Government backing the construction of a spaceport in Britain and the regulation shake-up to make this possible.

This could result in “spaceplanes” taking off from a conventional runway and then blasting satellites into space from rockets they carry to altitude, as well as conventional “vertical” launches.

In November the Government announced £50m of funding for spaceports, building on £99m announced earlier last year to develop a national satellite test facility at Harwell, and £4m to test a UK-designed new form of air-breathing rocket for spaceplanes.

British companies could be shut out of the European Space Agency's Galileo programe Credit: Getty

 

One senior industry source said: “It’s been a point of anger for years that we can’t launch our own satellites and there’s been a feeling that Britain needs to beef up its programme for years. The French contribute heavily to their own space programme as well as ESA – we need to do the same.”

Despite not being able to launch its own spacecraft, Britain currently builds about a quarter of all large communications satellites. The UK is also a world leader in smaller satellites – producing about 40pc of them – and the market is expected to see huge growth as the data they produce finds new commercial uses.

SpaceX’s launch of its Falcon Heavy rocket last week has been seen as a signal that the space sector is at a tipping point, with the successful launch cutting the cost of getting into orbit.

“We need a commitment from the Government that it really does support space,” said one industry source. “This is the time for them to step forward as we aren’t getting the detail of what Brexit will mean for us.”

A stronger UK space industry was welcomed by Dame Ann Dowling, president of the Royal Academy of Engineering. She said: “Space is already a growth area for engineering innovation and it has been identified as an important area for both research and commercial development through the industrial strategy.”

Sam Gyimah, the science minister, said: “The UK is perfectly placed to benefit from the new commercial space age exemplified by Tuesday’s successful launch. Our space sector is going from strength to strength and we are a global leader in satellite manufacturing, with one in four of the world’s telecommunications satellites made in Britain. 

“The Government is working with industry to build on the UK’s excellence and strengths in the space sector to enable small satellite launch and sub-orbital flight from UK spaceports for the first time. We have a country full of exciting new space companies, talented people and pioneering technology, all supported by an industrial strategy that backs businesses of the future.”