Space ticks the boxes for UK plc

Kasat Telecoms satellites are seen as a key part to the future success of the UK space industry

When the 19 member states of the European Space Agency (Esa) meet in Naples in 11 days' time, you'll be able to tell the British delegation from quite a distance. They'll be the ones with a bit of a swagger in their step.

The Chancellor George Osborne has just told them they can now commit substantially more money to the intergovernmental organisation's projects.

Currently, the UK invests an average of £170m a year in Esa. This is going to rise to an average of £240m over the period from 2013/14 to 2017/18.

It is a significant uplift at a time when many other member states have been frantically stuffing their hands down the back of the sofa to find the cash just to pay their existing subscriptions.

This Naples Ministerial Council will be key in setting the priorities of the agency in this decade, and Britain has now indicated it wants to play a leading role - but with a very clear purpose: to spur economic growth at home.

Many people think of Esa as a science organisation - and it is. But it is also a huge industrial programme. Each year it places contracts across Europe worth billions of euros; and the more money a member state puts into the Paris-based club, the more money that flows back to the home companies. And this is all hi-tech investment with proven multipliers, so the real return is even greater.

Take telecommunications satellites, for example. The UK's past investment in the Esa programme called Artes (Advanced Research in Telecommunications Systems) has generated an economic return for the UK of more than six to one.

The Astrium company at its Stevenage and Portsmouth centres has benefited most from this investment, and has become one of the world's leading suppliers of all those spacecraft up there that relay TV and phone calls around the globe. And this "upstream" activity has been followed by even more lucrative "downstream" businesses.

Inmarsat of London is the big daddy of mobile satellite communications services, and there are few more successful satellite TV companies in the world than British Sky Broadcasting.

As I've written before, government and industry in the UK now have a joint plan to push the space sector forward, and Science Minster David Willetts has been steadily working through a checklist that broadly follows the recommendations in the Space Innovation and Growth Strategy (S-IGS) published in 2010.

This document laid out the path it believed could take the UK from a position where it currently claims about 6% of the world market in space products and services to about 10% by 2030, creating perhaps 100,000 new hi-tech jobs in the process.

David Willetts David Willetts has convinced government colleagues of the returns that will come from Esa investment

Key S-IGS recommendations implemented so far include the establishment of the UK Space Agency (UKSA) and a National Space Technology Programme. Government support for an innovative radar satellite called NovaSAR was a tick in the box that called for investment in Earth observation.

Other pluses included the International Space Innovation Centre (Isic) and the Catapult Centre in Space Applications set up at Harwell, Oxfordshire. These institutions are very much industry-focused and will seek to foster near and far ideas and bring them to market.

George Osbourne's announcement of extra money for Esa fulfils yet another of the S-IGS recommendations.

"The fact that the UK government is increasing its subscription to Esa programmes is a huge vote of confidence," said Inmarsat's Ruy Pinto, who is also the chairman of UKspace, the industry trade body.

"It indicates that industry and science have successfully made the case - that started with the S-IGS - for targeted investments into our sector because of the return we could make to the UK economy. We tick a lot of boxes with the government in terms of wealth creation, job creation, export growth, and in being technology and science-led."

You don't need to be a rocket scientist to work out where the UK delegation plans to put a sizeable chunk of its elevated subscription in Naples. It will go into telecoms projects like Artes to develop the next generation of satellites.

Esa itself is so impressed by the UK's commitment that it is likely to move its telecommunications and integrated applications HQ from its big technical centre in Holland to its newly opened facility in Harwell.

This corner of Oxfordshire is becoming quite a magnet for new space activity.

NovaSar-S Government money is helping put the NovaSAR satellite in orbit
Jonathan Amos Article written by Jonathan Amos Jonathan Amos Science correspondent

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  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    10 bigwidewindow - That's a one-off though. Frankly you could Whittle away the hours trying to come up with another example of British ingenuity being ignored by know-nothing bigwigs.
    Interestingly the entire Skylon project would cost less than the Olympics. I know what I'd prefer, and being to first country to develop a reusable spaceplane would probably bring in far more long-term money.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    Good decision for GB. Well done Mr Osborne.
    Pity that we scrapped a lead in the 1960s when we were on the brink of finalising a booster rocket which would have (at the time) revolutionised placement of comm satellites into orbit.
    Still, the "Ban the Bomb" crowd was anti everything space then.
    Seems that they morphed into the Green lobby.
    Good decision At Last, for Britain (or is that now England?)

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    In 1969 the UK launched Black Arrow rockets, just the government of the time pulled funding on the project because 'there was no money to be had launching stuff into orbit...!!' Here we are, my entire lifetime & 13,000 satellites later , finally making good on our enviable talents & ingenuity. good news, but late news...

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    Wouldn't it be nice if as well as this any money saved from giving aid to India was ring-fenced and put towards the Skylon project?

    Sadly something tells me I shouldn't hold my breath

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    It nice to see more money for science and space technology generally. I think we need to be careful that we do not put all our eggs into space telecoms and look to expand outside of that into new areas

    would like to see some more British lead missions or entirely British missions something big like sending a probe to asteroid, develop better propulsion systems. May be something like the xprize.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    As a participant in the space industry, I am very pleased to see the UK stepping up to the plate when so many other states are in retreat. I am concerned though that Astrium and SSTL stand to gain the most, and remember that the benefit is for their French owners. Of course, it is British jobs.
    But equally valuable UK SME's in the sector still have huge difficulty in accessing this return.

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    Its great to see this investment and for our government to actually be doing something right.
    Of course I would like to see far more investment in space tech and science, especially into the development of larger launchers which might have the power to open up the whole industry. Looking long term investment space does have a good track record of paying off and of creating many hi-tech jobs.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    Excellent news!

    Space exploration has a proven track record of driving innovation across the board, its influence spreading far wider than the actual challenges to be overcome in running space operations. It also is something British scientists and engineers are good at!

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    We have an excellent and respected space industry, and it's good to see it being supported by the government. As you say, the economic return is substantial, but the kudos is just as rewarding.

    Well done to them, and keep pressing on.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    Excellent article, Jonathan. Of course this sort of spending is really an investment, as you well illustrate - but be ready for the usual penny smart, pound foolish whingers to complain about it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    While I have to say that any increase is obviously good news. The fact is £60 million is laughable.
    A tiny budget of just £240 million is simply not enough.

    Considering the Arts budget is over £800 million it demonstrates just how wrong our priorities are

    For all those who say we cannot afford more, what about the TV license being spent on space technology rather than game shows?

  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    SWe should invest more, but the sciences aren't trendy. It doesn't give politicians any scope to give an opinion because they don't know anything about it. So the "arts" get more funding in a year, because one opinion is as good as another

    But which "investment" brings about real benefits for the country? They just can't see it, can they?


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