Science & Environment

Plan to 'Catapult' UK space tech

The UK Science Minister David Willetts says the next Catapult technology and innovation centre will be dedicated to developing new space applications.

Three such centres have already been initiated by the government, in advanced manufacturing, cell biology and offshore renewables.

Their aim is to find the next big idea that, with the right support, can be turned into an economic success story.

Ministers see space activity as an area where "UK plc" can excel.

The space industry is already very healthy, and managed to sustain growth right through the recent recession.

The new Catapult centre in satellite applications is intended to provide businesses with "access to orbit test facilities, to develop and demonstrate new technologies".

"It will also provide access to advanced systems for data capture and analysis, supporting the development of new services delivered by satellites," Mr Willetts said in a speech on Wednesday to the thinktank Policy Exchange.

"These could be in a wide range of areas such as distance learning and telemedicine, urban planning, precision agriculture, traffic management and meteorology."

Jobs creator

The government's Technology Strategy Board (TSB), which is driving the Catapult concept, is already developing what is expected to be a series of spacecraft that will act as the demonstration platforms.

TechDemoSat-1 (TDS-1) is the first and should be ready for launch later this year. It incorporates novel hardware and software systems that their designers hope can prove their worth in orbit and go on to win export orders.

TDS-1 payloads include instruments to track ships and monitor the sea surface for freak waves, and even a self-destruct "sail" that will pull the spacecraft out of the sky at the end of its mission.

A tender will be issued shortly for a consortium to set up and run the new Catapult centre.

A workshop for those interested in becoming the leadership team will take place at the end of the month.

The TSB envisages a third-third-third funding model in which the money to operate it comes partly from government funding, partly from competitively won institutional contracts, and partly from the private sector.

The government's contribution will come out of the £200m that Prime Minister David Cameron announced last October when he initiated the technology and innovation centres programme in a speech to the Confederation of British Industry.

If the satellite Catapult follows the model of the cell therapies centre, the public funding is likely to be on the order of about £10m a year.

The space industry has agreed a path forward with government that aims to boost the sector. Many of the ideas were enshrined in the Space Innovation and Growth Strategy (Space-IGS) published in 2010.

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

'Private university'

As part of this push, the government last year inaugurated the International Space Innovation Centre (ISIC) based at Harwell in Oxfordshire.

Although its name suggests there might be considerable overlap with the Catapult centre, the former's remit is much more geared to exploiting "today's technology" to the maximum, while the latter will try to pull "tomorrow's technology" more to the near-term.

The Catapult is likely to focus on applications of R&D in four growth areas: communications, broadcasting, positioning and Earth observation. These are all areas where British technology is already globally very competitive.

Mr Willetts announced the space Catapult in a speech that sought to lay out a vision for how the UK could maintain excellence in science and technology.

He spoke about his desire to see a new type of university for cutting edge research that would be set up with international partners and funded by business.

And the minister also said he would set up leadership councils to help focus government policy in e-infrastructure and in synthetic biology.

Mr Willetts believes the successes of his space leadership council, which brings together key players in the sector into an advisory forum, can be mirrored in other science-related industries. and follow me on Twitter

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