Is the UK about to have liftoff in the global space industry?
In 1969, a British engineer was invited to the White House to meet President Nixon. His name was Francis Thomas Bacon and he had developed the fuel cells used on Apollo 11. Known now as Bacon fuel cells, these power sources consume hydrogen and oxygen to produce water, heat and, in theory, a continuous supply of electricity.
His invention was considered so integral to the success of the Apollo mission that Nixon told him, “Without you Tom, we wouldn’t have gotten to the moon.”
Bacon is one of many heroes in the history of Britain in space. The UK was the world’s third ever space-faring nation, after the USSR and US. And in the years after Apollo, several UK space companies, including Inmarsat and Surrey Satellite Technology, were created, building on the work of these early British space engineers.
Over the last 50 years, however, few would describe Britain as a truly global space superpower. While the UK has much expertise in developing and producing satellites, it has less experience launching them. Britain has not independently launched a satellite of its own since 1971. Only 5% of the 2,600 satellites in orbit today are registered to the UK.
Yet over the last decade, space has proved to be one of the UK’s fastest growing sectors. It has trebled in size since 2010. Today the UK space industry employs almost 42,000 people and generates an income of GBP15bn every year. More than GBP300bn of wider UK GDP is supported by satellite services, including telecoms, metrology, earth observation and navigation.
The UK’s ongoing membership of the European Space Agency (Esa) will not be affected by Brexit. Esa is not an EU institution. But the UK’s departure from the EU will impact to varying degrees the UK’s involvement in European space programmes. These include the satellite navigation programme Galileo, Copernicus Earth Observation and the EU Space Surveillance and Tracking programme.
The government wants the UK to be the most attractive place in Europe for those looking to launch into orbit and beyond. The global small satellite launch market is worth about GBP400bn. The UK wants 10% of that market by 2030.
To achieve this, the UK will need the ability to launch its own satellites into space. That’s why the UK is investing in a number of spaceports (think airports but for rockets) across the country. Most recently, the government gave the green light for Lockheed Martin to transfer its small satellite launch operations to the Shetland Space Centre on the Scottish island of Unst.
The Shetlands have a number of qualities that make them ideal for getting to space. Their northern latitude provides easy access to polar orbits, good for low earth, small satellites. And their remoteness allows launches to be directed over the sea, away from heavily populated areas.
Shetland is not the only area in the UK to have increased investment in space. Spaceports are also being developed in Cornwall and Sutherland.
The government also announced this year the development of new “space hubs” across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Each will use government funding to bring together local authority expertise and business to create a strategy for how that area can take advantage of the commercial space race. And with the ability to launch its own satellites into space at lower cost, the UK is also hoping to build on its legacy of innovation in space.
In 1941, the writer Isaac Asimov imagined giant solar panels positioned in space, capable of capturing the sun’s rays and beaming them down to earth and the grid. That was fiction. But last month, the government commissioned new research to understand what it would take to make space-based solar power a reality. For the first time, the technology (including lightweight solar panels and wireless power transmission) and the economics (lower cost space launches) make this a possibility.
Bacon’s fuel cells, provided they have a continuous source of hydrogen and oxygen, offered a continuous supply of electricity. In space, where the sun never sets, solar panels, offer the promise of a continuous supply of renewable energy. They represent one example of a potentially gamechanging innovation as the UK charts its next 50 years in space.