The UK government has reformed the National Space Council taskforce to look at how to grow the UK space industry, having disbanded the group less than a year ago. Whitehall has also launched a new space strategy, which sets out goals and requirements to use the sector to drive economic growth through rocket launches, satellite technology and innovation. Industry insiders say it is key that the ideas in the strategy are brought to life quickly.
The advisory group the National Space Council was established in 2020 to provide leadership on building the UK space sector but was disbanded by Liz Truss during her short term as prime minister last year. Co-chaired by the Department of Science, Innovation and Technology (DSIT) and the MoD, the group has now been reinstated and will provide ministerial direction to the prime minister on what is needed to grow the space economy.
This week, the government released its new strategy, alongside a report outlining “a case for space”, which discussed the impact the sector has on the wider economy and why it is a worthwhile investment for the treasury. The space sector is forecasted to be worth $1trn globally by 2050 and the report says the opportunity to capitalise “is time limited” as every other nation also seeks to capitalise on the orbital industrial revolution.
The UK space sector is currently worth £17.5bn and employs more than 48,000 people. According to the report, it has a five-year projected growth rate of 6.4%, which outpaces the wider UK economy. This, says the research “is all despite the UK being a relatively low spender compared to big space nations”. The UK government spends 0.05% of GDP on space, compared with 0.24% of GDP in the US and 0.08% in China.
The new National Space Strategy includes the goal of capturing the European market in commercial small satellite launches, mainly through launch facilities in Scotland, at Saxavord and Sutherland. It also wants to use space technology to fight climate change. This will include Earth observation missions and a £1.84bn investment through the European Space Agency over five years. There are also moves to utilise OneWeb, the part-government-owned communications satellite constellation that was built to provide backhaul broadband services to remote parts of the planet.
The role of the National Space Council
There will be more announcements around direct government investment in innovation and new technologies. This could include quantum key technologies, thermal imaging to improve building energy efficiency and launch capacity. Like other major technological innovations, the government plans to grow new clusters built around space technology. These will be built around the spaceports in Scotland and Cornwall, including £5m of government funding for 18 projects in these regions.
There are also plans to improve public services with space technology, through the Satellite Applications Catapult. This will include improving infrastructure monitoring for bridges, supporting farmers manage land and mitigate for future flooding events.
The National Space Council is co-chaired by Chloe Smith, Secretary of State for Science, Innovation and Technology, and Defence Secretary Ben Wallace. A large part of the strategy includes efforts to deliver the UK defence space portfolio, which includes Earth observation satellite constellations and laser communication satellites.
Smith said space is critical to modern life through telecoms, weather forecasting and even national security. All of those areas rely on satellites and as space grows in importance “so must our ambitions for the UK”. She added: “The UK is perfectly placed, whether geographically, economically or as a product of our world-class skills base, to be not only a European leader but a global power in space.”
Part of the new strategy outlines plans to drive private investment in the sector, as well as public investment in R&D, and regulatory improvements to speed up the process for both launch and satellite technology. Dr Paul Bate, chief executive of the UK Space Agency, described the strategy as a significant step in “delivering the government’s ambition to make the UK one of the most innovative and attractive space economies in the world.”
“By catalysing investment into UK businesses, increasing our involvement in major space missions and championing the power of space to improve lives, the UK Space Agency is playing a major role in accelerating the growth of the UK’s thriving space sector,” Bate said.
UK space strategy must be brought to life
Alan Thompson, head of government affairs at UK rocket company Skyrora, told Tech Monitor the plans are geared around making the UK a space superpower by 2030 and so “the next seven years will be about enacting all initiatives to help us achieve this”.
“The Action Plan goes further than 2021 National Space Strategy to define policies for growth, where capabilities will be acquired, and maximise return on investment, which is greatly welcomed,” he says. “We hope that the existing engagement between regulators and industry can both allow the necessary knowledge procurement and practical experience required to take place, while at the same time, allow the permission process to continue.”
There is general support for the space sector in the wider UK tech industry. This includes utilising space for monitoring and efficiency improvements. Sophie James, head of telecoms and spectrum policy at tech trade association techUK, welcomed the plan and the government’s “commitment to translating its ambitious space goals into concrete achievements.”
James says this lays the groundwork for a new era of collaboration, innovation and growth in the space sector. “By offering space sector businesses and innovators a clear understanding and certainty of the government’s next steps, the strategy empowers industry to confidently pursue our shared mission of contributing to and realising the government’s vision of becoming a world leader in space technology and exploration,” she says.