BBC News

Two new centres to drive UK space activity

By Jonathan Amos
Science correspondent, BBC News

image captionEsa will get a purpose-built facility on the Harwell campus

Two major elements in Britain's space strategy have been officially unveiled in Oxfordshire.

One is the European Space Agency's (ESA) first technical centre in the UK, to be known as the European Centre for Space Applications and Telecoms.

The other is the Satellite Applications Catapult, one of seven new government initiatives intended to drive innovation in growing areas of the British economy.

Both centres are on the Harwell campus.

Their co-location is quite deliberate. The Oxfordshire science park, most visible for its giant Diamond synchrotron facility, is already home to a lot of space activity, not least the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, which builds and tests satellite equipment.

"We see Harwell as a campus which is going to provide a combination of world-class science, high-tech activity, and business opportunity," said David Willetts, the UK's science minister.

image captionAstrium's SES-6 satellite, due for launch in June, is an example of the UK's telecoms expertise

"One of the reasons why Esa have been so keen to have a stronger presence here is precisely because they could see this was a campus with a buzz, with a range of different disciplines, and with a mixture of scientists and business people. It's an environment for open innovation."

At the moment, Esa personnel onsite are using existing buildings, but they will eventually get a purpose-built facility.

The formal opening of Ecsat closes an anomaly whereby the UK, which is now Esa's third largest funder, did not host one of the agency's major research centres.

Britain has recently increased its subscription to the Paris-based organisation by 25%, and Esa has responded by moving its department dedicated to R&D in satellite telecommunications to the UK from the Netherlands.

The re-location also brings with it an Esa director, Magali Vaissiere.

The agency's director general, Jean-Jacques Dordain, said the establishment of Ecsat marked the coming together of a plan to pull the UK back into a more engaged position on space matters.

"There is now a definitive presence of the UK in space, and it is good news that the UK is back to being a strong player," he told BBC News. "It is also good news that Esa is now definitively in the UK."

A significant proportion of Britain's hike in funding for Esa has been directed at telecommunications.

It has committed £161m (189m euros) over the next three-to-five years to an Esa programme called Artes (Advanced Research in Telecommunications Systems).

media captionStuart Martin: "The space sector has grown at a phenomenal rate"

This is designed to find the future technologies that will keep the European satellite sector competitive.

For UK companies involved in Artes, past investment has generated a return of more than six to one.

The Astrium company at its Stevenage and Portsmouth bases has benefited most from this investment, and has become one of the world's leading suppliers of spacecraft that relay TV and phone calls around the globe.

The Satellite Applications Catapult joins six other centres set up in the UK by the government's Technology Strategy Board.

All are heavily focused on translating good ideas - many of them originating in academia - into sound business projects.

image captionThe new Catapult is integral to the strategy to grow the UK space sector over the next two decades

The UK space sector currently contributes about £9bn to the national economy, and industry and government have set themselves the target of trying to raise this figure to £40bn by 2030. SMEs encouraged by the Harwell Catapult will be integral to achieving this goal.

The Catapult will help these fledgling companies find the right expertise and sources of funding to grow their businesses.

"By any measure the UK research sector is world-leading, but it has been a long-standing feeling within the UK that we don't get the economic outputs that some other countries do," said Stuart Martin, the CEO of the new Satellite Applications Catapult.

"We see the structures those countries have got and we can see there is something missing in the UK. The Catapults are there to fill that void."

The European Space Agency's other big centres are:

• The European Space Research and Technology Centre (Estec) in Noordwijk, the Netherlands, is the largest Esa centre. Spacecraft are tested at Estec before being launched.

• The European Space Operations Centre (Esoc) in Darmstadt, Germany, is the location from where Esa spacecraft are controlled during their missions.

• Esrin in Frascati, Italy, is the Esa Centre for Earth Observation.

• The European Space Astronomy Centre (Esac) is Esa's centre dedicated to space science and astronomy, and is based in Villanueva de la Canada, Spain.

• The European Astronaut Centre (Eac) trains Europe's astronauts and is situated in Cologne, Germany.

France does not have a research centre, but it hosts the Esa HQ in Paris. and follow me on Twitter: @BBCAmos

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