In late 2012, amidst a sagging economy, the U.K. government announced a sizable increase in space spending based on the assumption that such financial backing would spur Britain’s already fast-growing space economy.
The £1.2 billion ($2 billion) investment—a 25% increase over five years in Britain’s contribution to the 20-nation European Space Agency (ESA)—led to the immediate establishment of a new satellite technology center at Harwell, Oxford, including ESA’s telecommunications director, Magali Vaissiere, who relocated from Paris to run the large technology campus.
Two years later, the return on that investment is beginning to trickle in: Since 2012 the U.K. has seen an increase of 7.2% in Britain’s space economy. The government estimates it is now worth £11.3 billion annually, a figure they expect to grow to £40 billion by 2030.
As a result, several aerospace and defense companies are investing here, hoping to capture some of Britain’s space revenue, now going mainly to hardware manufacturer Defense and Space U.K. and satellite fleet operator Inmarsat of London. In recent months, in part because of ESA’s geographic-return policies, companies in Europe, Canada and the U.S. with little or no presence in the U.K. space sector have begun raising their profiles.
The latest example isSpace Systems, which says it will open a new space technology office at Harwell this year to explore partnership opportunities with British companies and universities.
“We’re going to couple our 50-year legacy with Lockheed Martin in space with what the U.K. has been doing,” says Richard Ambrose, executive vice president of Denver-based Lockheed Martin Space Systems, adding that the company is interested in developing small satellites and payloads in key technology areas, such as remote sensing, climate monitoring, space weather, global security and mobile communications.
Rocketdyne is another U.S. hardware builder keen to profit from increased U.K. space spending, opening a new European Space Propulsion operation with U.K. in Belfast last year to develop in-space propulsion for satellites. In June the company delivered an initial set of thrusters to U.K. small-satellite maker SSTL under a contract to equip up to 12 spacecraft for the Taiwan-U.S. Formosat-7/Cosmic-2 climate- and weather-monitoring program.
Space hardware manufacturer(TAS) of France and Italy is also working with Thales U.K. in Belfast. The company established a presence in Britain last year, operating out of Harwell since January to develop electric propulsion technologies for ESA’s next-generation Neosat program.
Since setting up shop in Oxford with around a dozen staff, the new TAS U.K. has grown to more than 60 people with the recent acquisition of Systems Engineering & Assessment Ltd. (SEA), a Bristol-based space manufacturing company with expertise in electronics and space mission subsystems and a customer base already including ESA.
“We’re waiting for a telecoms program to come through with electric propulsion, where we can then do the work in Bristol,” says Martin Gee, CEO of TAS U.K.
Enthusiasm has even hit areas with no near-term commercial promise, such as the Skylon spaceplane and its revolutionary Sabre synthetic air-breathing rocket engine in development at Britain’s Reaction Engines Ltd. Last year, the Oxon-based company received £60 million in U.K.-government backing to advance the hybrid engine.
Britain also has begun evaluating whether a U.K. spaceport capable of hosting suborbital flight operations and eventually small satellite launches is a good investment. Unveiled July 15 amidst a cabinet reshuffle that saw Greg Clark replace David Willetts as the U.K. minister in charge of space, the proposal seeks to clear regulatory hurdles toward development by 2018, with eight airports identified as meeting initial criteria, including six in Scotland.
During a press conference announcing the move, U.K. officials brushed aside concerns that development of airports in Scotland could be complicated by an upcoming vote on Scottish independence, not to mention a U.K. referendum next year on continued membership in the European Union.
“The U.K. government policy is about Scotland remaining part of the U.K., and all the planning continues on that basis,” said David Parker, head of the U.K. Space Agency, emphasizing Britain’s commitment to maintain the 25% increase in space spending agreed to in 2012.
“Our vision for space in the U.K. is starting to deliver success, and that success is starting to resonate around the world,” Parker said.