Space: a cornerstone of the UK government’s drive for innovation

November 25, 2009 - The International Space Station in orbit above the Earth.

Government has launched the National Space Strategy. I reflect on the opportunity this provides for STFC and the UK space sector.

Benefits for the UK population

The government’s National Space Strategy is exciting. For the first time, we have a long-term vision to make the UK space sector one of the most attractive and innovative space economies in the world. With strong capabilities in space research and business innovation already, this vision, backed by an ambitious delivery plan, is hugely motivating and inspiring for the sector.

The broad spread of invested interest across government departments puts a spotlight on the scope of the vision.

Government departments involved:

  • Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy
  • Ministry of Defence
  • UK Space Agency
  • UK Research and Innovation (UKRI)
  • Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office
  • Department for Transport
  • Department for International Trade
  • Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs
  • Department for Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport
  • Cabinet Office.

Bringing together civil and defence space activities will deliver solutions with many benefits to the UK population:

  • new technology for the Earth observation, communications and navigation satellites of tomorrow will drive increased capability to monitor our environment, helping us manage and mitigate climate change for example, while creating a raft of applications that will help to improve life here on Earth
  • it will create a more robust national infrastructure to protect the UK population from threats at home and abroad, such as cyber-attacks and anti-satellite missiles
  • we will be able to operate in a more sustainable space environment, monitoring space for debris and developing the technologies to remove and mitigate the problem of junk in space, while creating new applications such as space manufacturing that present major economic opportunities
  • it will help position the UK to take advantage of frontier environments such as Lunar exploration, exploiting the technological opportunities and novel perspectives and knowledge that will bring.

Gathering great minds

Collaboration is a central theme in the National Space Strategy, and the involvement of a range of government departments will make a huge difference to how the space ecosystem will be able to collaborate. Built on the principle of collaboration are:

  • our world-class space clusters based at the Science and Technology Facilities Council’s (STFC) Harwell and Daresbury Science and Innovation campuses
  • the Higgs Centre for Innovation in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Credit: Harwell

Within the clusters we support innovation by co-locating businesses with research and development (R&D) communities, and providing access to knowledge and expertise in a variety of technologies, unique state-of-the-art facilities and access to networks. The sum really is bigger than the individual parts.

The Harwell Space Cluster is the UK’s flagship gateway for the UK space sector. It has more space organisations in walking distance than anywhere in the world. It is home to:

  • 100+ space organisations
  • 1000+ space experts.

It also connects capability across the UK, supporting emerging clusters in other parts of the country, as well as linking supply chains and international customers.

We have always worked in partnership with colleagues in government departments, and this focus on collaboration within the strategy, really energises its importance. Building on what we’re doing today is an operational language the whole sector understands. Today’s cluster model is already driving growth and helping industry to innovate and commercialise big solutions to some of the world’s biggest challenges, such as climate change.

The new Space Strategy will further empower British space businesses to innovate and grow. It will raise the profile of the sector amongst government stakeholders, which is one of the keys to unlocking the opportunities for private finance and investment.

Partners in the plan

The delivery plan draws out 10 key areas of focus, and we are excited about our role as a partner to deliver across them all. There’s an excellent match with what we can provide as an organisation, and from our wider space ecosystems: the clusters. Below, we explore just a few.

Supporting British launch activities

Harwell Space Cluster is connected to spaceports across the UK. Within the cluster, RAL Space is an STFC facility engaged in cutting edge space R&D across the UK. It gives companies access to its facilities so they can develop and commercialise technology at speed. It is also home to the new National Satellite Test Facility, the first of its kind in the country, which means UK companies can test spacecraft and space payloads here at home in the UK.

Creating a sustainable space

The Harwell Space Cluster is becoming a hub of expertise in space sustainability. NORSS is a company monitoring space debris. Astroscale and ClearSpace (working with Deimos) are companies removing that space junk. The community is developing, ensuring the UK retains its leadership position in this field.

Modernising transport

The Darwin autonomous connected bus is currently being trialled at Harwell Campus. Through a partnership with the European Space Agency and other organisations the bus adopts a number of novel technologies including satellite communications, 5G and green energy to deliver an innovative solution.

A living laboratory

We can never predict which solutions will succeed. To compete with the best in the world we need to take risks. What I think is key to the UK realising its ambition is to enable industry to try new ideas quickly, but to fail fast if necessary and quickly move on to other things. This is kind of like a living laboratory. This needs to be supported by funding both from government and private investment.

We also need to work with the government to push the regulatory framework, to allow the rapid scaling up of those solutions that will be viable in the future.

We need also, to ensure that the UK has the right skills to maintain a leadership position. We have inspirational facilities, already award-winning training schemes, and through our links to businesses on campus, we can provide skilled staff into those SMEs.

STFC has in fact developed a ‘Skills Factory’ proposal. The idea is to inspire the next generation to work in space, through significantly increasing early career opportunities, as well as supporting those returning to the workplace or switching careers.

Space is our oyster

I welcome the National Space Strategy. I believe the UK space sector, with strong backing from government, can be a world-class space economy of the future. To use space exploration not just for scientific knowledge, but to push the boundaries to innovate commercially will see huge advances in areas such as:

  • the circular economy
  • the generation and use of green energy
  • ubiquitous communication systems.

I am excited about the opportunities the strategy will unlock, for example, attracting private finance on a larger scale, and cementing the UK’s science superpower status, through a truly connected Britain. I’m even more excited about the huge benefits this will bring to the UK population, and about the applications of the future that will be developed to sustain life here on Earth for subsequent generations.

It’s an amazing position to be in!

Top image: Credit: Stocktrek Images / Getty Images

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