British Commercial Space Sector Strong as UKSA Gets Off to Slow Start

The UK space industry continues to excel in satellite communications and remote sensing technologies, with experts expecting strong growth in the years ahead. However, the nation is facing two major problems: a shortage of skilled personnel for its commercial efforts, and a flat budget and a slow start for the new United Kingdom Space Agency (USKA).

The Engineer takes a look at some of the positives:

However, according to Prof Martin Sweeting, head of space science at Surrey University and chairman of small satellite pioneer Surrey Satellites, the sector is growing faster than most other parts of the UK’s economy. ‘Studies in the UK now show that the space sector is one of the highest value-adding economic sectors,’ he said.

Sweeting believes the UK’s strength in this sector stems from a focus on innovation. ‘The UK has pioneered the development of service-based businesses such as InMarSat and Paradigm, rather than relying on institutional purchases of satellite hardware,’ he explained, adding that his own firm is applying that approach to Earth observation using small imaging satellites.

Government input to help the sector should be structural rather than financial, Sweeting believes. ‘We do not want government hand-outs just to keep the sector alive, as that tends to detract from ensuring that what we deliver is of real value,’ he said. ‘Rather, government should provide a supportive tax environment for research and development, and financial underwriting for export, as with countries such as France and Germany.’

One problem faced by the space sector is a shortage of people with the necessary skills to drive development forward at the pace required. ‘We continually have difficulty finding high-quality scientists and engineers,’ Sweeting warned. ‘The disciplines, which have underpinned the UK’s economy for centuries, are not being valued and, in an attempt to make them more accessible, are also being diluted in terms of the depth of the skills required.’ Space is an international business, he added, and competitors such as China and India are taking a very different tack, producing increasing numbers of highly qualified graduates.

Meanwhile, Nature reports that the new UKSA is suffering from the British coalition government’s austerity efforts. The space agency was announced last March to replace the weak British National Space Centre, which had previously coordinated the country’s fragmented space effort.  UKSA is designed to bring a higher profile and a sharper focus to the nation’s space efforts. However, the agency has gotten off to a slow start as it has dealt with political changes and financial limitations:

The UKSA was announced with much fanfare in March 2010, but its low-key start and lacklustre annual budget of £206 million (US$332 million; €241 million, see chart) has left some disappointed. “At the moment, we’re not happy,” says Richard Peckham, the chair of UKspace, the industry’s trade association. “But it’s still early days.”

But as the Swindon-based UKSA prepares to officially open for business on 1 April, it has yet to put forward a clear plan. “We are still waiting for the emergence of a confirmed UK space strategy,” says Martin Ditter, head of the ESA centre at Harwell.

The slow start is largely due to the ousting of the Labour government in May 2010. In December, the new coalition government announced that, as part of its austerity programme, the overall UKSA budget for the next four years would be almost flat. That makes it unlikely that the agency will launch its own spacecraft any time soon, although researchers hope that its unifying voice will help Britain to negotiate more prominent roles in ESA science missions.

“Against the backdrop of 25% cuts in government spending, they’ve probably done a pretty good job,” says Peckham. But there is a tinge of disappointment in his voice as he adds, “It doesn’t yet look like the empowered agency that we want to see.”