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.

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  • rate this

    Comment number 32.

    For those outside the UK space industry who may not know. UK R&D investment from the TSB and UK Space Agency as well as the ESA funding programmes, helps small UK companies as well as large ones. As an SME owner I have been able to employ more because of this help and will repay it with exports and tax in the future. Investment now will grow the economy, sustained investment will maintain growth.

  • rate this

    Comment number 31.

    This is very good news for the UK. Now publicise the the suppliers which generate the 6:1 and show how they spread around the UK and how many jobs are involved. Positive news helps voters, which helps politicians and helps funding. Satellites are a big winner for the UK in jobs and earnings if we could launch them we could earn more in jobs and exports. Tell your MP what is needed they may listen.

  • rate this

    Comment number 30.

    Artificial gravity? or maybe magic. In the end it all boils down to dollers per kilo to put into orbit. we should be investing in reaction Engines and Skylon.

  • rate this

    Comment number 29.

    We will benefit from this but, and I say but we need to really make a move into propulsion and artificial gravity ect. We need to first be able to produce ships with gravity and also we need to work out how to cross larger distances and also ascent and descent so its normal as a plane. Then we will see massive returns from mining and space tourism.

    We really must get past consumer driven ideas.

  • rate this

    Comment number 28.

    Weird that our government is actively investing in highly skilled jobs after decades of decline and zero investment

    Enjoy it while it lasts chaps, It never does

    One of the most useful paid-for courses you can go on during these good times is a learn to speak German course

  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    At last some common sense, after the election you asked for ideas and my suggestion was to put the money into space exploration not wars. For society to benefit from this - we will be judged by how we care for our most vulnerable members, and if we wish to progress and evolve we can not afford to trash space like we have trashed this planet by deifying money - there is more to life than money..

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    So what are they planning to do with space? Fill it with roads, housing estates, airports and carbon dioxide, same as down here?

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    The problem with the UK economy is that the manufacturing industry went and we were too reliant on the service sector. We need manufacturing back but we can't compete with the third world for basic things, which is why space is so important. We should invest much more in space and tech, making them cores of our economy.

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    Its £2 billion too little

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    As an artist I could not disagree more.

    Science improves society, all of it and not just a tiny decadent elite who tend to benefit from state funding of the arts

    Good artists will earn a living, if it needs state funding then it isn’t very good

    Science needs state funding, more importantly modern society need the science if it is to thrive

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    21. Little_Old_Me - I would say in response that science is more important than the arts, there's no debate there, just fact. Before you freak out though I'll add that arts are vital to civilized society.
    The arts budget doesn't have to be cut - but the UK space programme should have a budget that's massively higher - especially when the return on that investment is 6-1.

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    2.englishvote - ".....Considering the Arts budget is over £800 million it demonstrates just how wrong our priorities are....."

    The arts are arguably what make us different from the "beasts". They are not more important than science, but neither are the seciences more important than the arts.

    Both are equally importantly to human civilisation & should both be fully funded.

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    Still less than many other European countries, but certainly good news. Having recently emmigrated to the US to work with NASA the feeling here is that Europe is taking a lead in many space projects. However, this funding must be matched with funding for Universities and other research organisations to ensure that future gains are exploited to the full.

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    About time - we have been living with Thatcher's lack of vision for way too long.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.


    Although I am a supporter of our defense industry, it does very good engineering and research, I agree that investment in space is more important.

    We should be investing 10% of our GDP into space research, it would provide huge dividends and push us forward.

    But it wont win votes in 4 years, and that is all politicians really care about.

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    @16 but the war industry is also one of this country's most lucrative/revered assets ;-)

    Excellent to hear. I do wish the UK space industry had the cloud to do stuff itself but then pooling recourses as part of a European group is probably the wisest way to go.

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    @2. englishvote
    ''£240 million is simply not enough.
    Considering the Arts budget is over £800 million it demonstrates just how wrong our priorities are''
    Now, now. Although I agree £240 million still isn't enough, don't start trying to undermine our creative industry when it's probably this country's most revered asset.
    Maybe we should stop investing in the industry of War.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    Excellent news. Wish I could say our space program was getting a comparable boost -- it's down to less than one half of one percent of the US budget for the first time since 1959, and everyone seems to forget the huge ROI generated by Apollo -- estimated as high as $14 generated for every $1 spent. Returning to the Moon -- or gearing up for Mars -- could play a similar role.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    This is good news. Our science & engineering base has to be used to lead us out of this current recession. UK government would be wise to consider more initiatives like this one that will benefit our science & engineering capability.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    If the returns on investment are so good (6-1 ???) then why stop at £240million?

    Shove a couple of billions in there and solve the deficit crisis.


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