By Joshua.Chambers

22 Aug 2013

The UK has long had a strong space industry but, until recently, government support for it was small-scale and fragmented. David Parker, UK Space Agency chief executive, tells Joshua Chambers how things have changed.

Britain is helping America to build a time machine, says David Parker, chief executive of the UK Space Agency (UKSA).

After ten years of development and £7bn of investment, NASA is set to launch a space observatory that will sit 1.5m kilometres from Earth: there, it’s cool enough for the sensitive instruments to function and there’s constant sunlight for power. “It’s trying to look back 13bn years to the first light from the first stars coming into existence, in order to join up the history of the universe to try and see the first planetary system forming,” Parker explains. First generation stars were very primitive, and they exploded and re-formed into more complex stars and planetary systems. The observatory will look for the light – still travelling across the universe – that came from that first generation of stars.

It will take six months to get the observatory into position: it’ll be fired into space tightly packed into a rocket, then unfurl like a giant umbrella the size of a tennis court. Right in the middle of this extraordinary contraption is its infrared detector, designed by a British professor in Edinburgh, and built by British and European engineers. This will look for light that has been travelling for such a long time that it’s become stretched, rendering only its infrared sections identifiable.

You might not know it, but the UK is pretty good at space age technologies, with an industry – currently worth £9bn a year – working on projects as diverse as space broadband, satellite manufacturing, remote medical procedures, and using ‘space data’ for precision agriculture. Two years ago, the government decided that more should be done to promote this industry, so it established UKSA to invest directly in projects, coordinate space activity, and work with international partners. The government also set UKSA the target of turning the sector into one worth £40bn a year by 2030.

To Swindon and beyond
Britain has long been a competitor in the space race, albeit one that’s somewhat underfunded compared to our competitors: UK scientists and technologists have long felt like they’re running in plimsolls and a string vest among a sea of lycra-clad rivals. We started strongly: in 1962, the UK became the third nation to reach space, launching the Ariel 1 satellite on an American rocket. But by the mid-1970s Britain realised it couldn’t afford its own rocket programme, let alone human spaceflight.

While the US has NASA, with its budget of billions, the UK had a budget of millions – and this was funnelled through a variety of bodies, such as the research councils, the Met Office, the Ministry of Defence, and the then-Department for Trade and Industry. It also had a small coordinating body, the British National Space Centre (BNSC), established in 1985 with a budget of £2m a year, which represented the UK’s space efforts internationally.

Then the decision was made, Parker says, to focus strategically on “where the excellent science is, where the excellent business opportunities are, and where the value is to everyday life”. Parker himself has been involved in the industry for more than 20 years, entering the sector as an engineer and businessman before joining the BNSC – first to lead on industrial policy, and then representing the UK’s space sector internationally.

It was at an international meeting in 2008 that the idea of the UK Space Agency first arose. Lord Drayson, then the science minister, asked his officials, including Parker, why the UK didn’t have a dedicated space agency to channel government expenditure and coordinate our disparate activities. With no good reason why the UK shouldn’t set one up (Nigeria has had a space agency since 2001), Britain finally created one in 2011.

Space is ace
The lacklustre approach of British governments to the space sector didn’t prevent it from growing. “We’ve become one of the major suppliers of space hardware to the world, and also one of the main users of space data,” Parker says. On the hardware side, 40% of the world’s satellites are now built by a company called Surrey Satellites in Guildford: “They’re world-leaders: they’ve exported 35 satellites now, to China, Algeria, Nigeria, Spain, the US.”

British companies are also big players in satellite operations. One company, Inmarsat, runs a fleet of “the 12 most sophisticated spacecraft ever built,” Parker says: they constantly relay communications data and broadcast television news around the globe. To do this, each of the satellites must continuously adjust frequencies and bandwidths, coordinate positions and data exchange with other crafts poised 22,000 miles above Earth, and keep operating without intervention for 15 years. “It’s bombarded with radiation constantly; it’s in a vacuum; it’s launched on a rocket that will accelerate it at 5-6G, shake it, expose it 140 decibels of noise, and it’s got to be really light to get into space,” Parker says. “There’s everyday engineering, there’s aerospace engineering, and then there’s space engineering.”

There are broader uses of satellite technology, too, which Britain is exploiting. One company can now provide internet broadband from space. “It doesn’t matter where you live: as long as you’ve got electrical power, you can get five to ten megabits tomorrow. You put a dish on your roof and [the broadband is] there,” Parker says. The technology has strong export potential because – particularly in Africa – it’s expensive to lay cables to develop infrastructure, while copper cables are unlikely to be left alone for long.

Use of ‘space data’ is the biggest growth area, Parker believes, and can particularly benefit three industries: maritime, agriculture and energy. In the maritime sector, space data can be used to optimise shipping. “A huge chunk of the world’s economy is sitting inside containers on ships zooming around the world,” he explains. “You want to know where they are; you want to know where the pirates are; and you need to be able to steer your ship to get optimum fuel consumption, because how much fuel you use can make the difference between a profitable cargo and an unprofitable cargo,” he explains.

In agriculture, space data allows for far greater precision. “You can see on a field where your crop is doing really well and in which bits of the field your crop is doing less well. Therefore, when you go out with your fertiliser-dispensing machines, you can carefully put the right amount of fertiliser in the right place, optimising the yield and maximising the profit per hectare,” Parker says. This approach is already being used in French vineyards and by the US Department of Agriculture. Meanwhile, in the energy sector, space data helps provide surveys and weather information for planning the position of wind farms.

On the research side, British scientists are the second largest users of the Hubble telescope, Parker says; it uses a great deal of UK technology, and research time has to be won in international competitions. Further, the largest space telescope built so far, Herschel, is packed full of UK technology, including an instrument designed to see ‘dark matter’.

Spacing things up
While the UK already has a strong space industry, UKSA has a target of making it 10% of the anticipated value of the global space market by 2030. “It’s a very stretching target,” Parker admits. “[But] the rationale is this: we currently estimate that we have around 6% of the global market for space. The growth rate of that [global market] is such that it will be worth £400bn in 2030. And it’s mostly in downstream services.”

So far, so good for the British industry, with an average growth rate in the sector of 7.5% over the last decade, Parker says. Yet if the market is already growing, and was strong without a dedicated agency, why establish one now? What value is being added by the UK Space Agency?

Parker says space investment used to be split according to projects that would benefit the public directly, the scientific community, or industry. By combining these aims in one organisation, you can choose “to invest in a way that is going to benefit several of these areas simultaneously,” he says. “So if you’re investing in a specific piece of space technology, [we might] choose something that has a relevance to the scientific domain but that’s also going to go into a commercial application in due course.”

For every £1 that UKSA invests in telecoms satellite programmes, Parker says, £6 is generated for the UK economy “because industry matches it, they develop a piece of technology, and then they sell it”. Just a few weeks ago, the British government invested £60m through UKSA into a British-designed rocket engine that could power aeroplanes in and out of low orbit. The project could create up to 21,000 jobs, according to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS).

Yet even with a new agency and a beefed-up space budget, our expenditure is comparatively modest. NASA’s spending is $17bn a year, including $6bn on human spaceflight. UKSA’s budget is £300m a year, and BIS puts another £50m or so into space-related areas: this total is “half of Italy’s budget, and a quarter of France and Germany’s”, he says – though these nations do also invest in rockets and human space flight. In space science, Britain is the second largest funder in Europe; it is Europe’s biggest investor in commercial telecoms and in robotic exploration programmes.

Britain’s continued, targeted investment should also be viewed against a backdrop of declining investment from other countries, including France, Parker notes. And there’s growing UK investment in work that understands Planet Earth, in particular looking at climate change and the melting icecaps.

Building enterprise (not that one)
UKSA doesn’t carry out research itself – “we’re administrators of public money, with all that goes into that” – although many people working at UKSA have a space-engineering background. As Parker explains this, there’s a rapid knock on the door and a very tall, very enthusiastic man in spectacles rushes into the room with a sheaf of papers. “Sorry, this is urgent,” Parker says, signing them there and then while CSW questions the other chap for a minute or so.

The documents make up a Space Activity Licence, he explains: UKSA has to provide one before any British-built satellite can be launched anywhere in the world. The licence is for the largest telecoms satellite ever built in Europe, Alphasat, which was made in Stevenage for Inmarsat. The technical assessments are required by the 1986 Outer Space Treaty, which places unlimited liability on member states for any technology built in their nation.

Much of the UK’s space industry is based in the South-East – in the so-called Space City project in Oxfordshire, which is funded by UKSA and Europe; in Surrey; in Stevenage; and in Swindon, where UKSA is based. How can the space industry become a bit more balanced? “It’s a fair observation that the current space industry is quite focused in the South-East. We’re quite conscious of that,” Parker says. While “there’s a growing pocket of activities in Scotland” and “some regional growth money has gone to people like the Goonhilly Centre in Cornwall”, he admits that “there’s more that can be done there”.

UKSA has tentatively engaged with Local Enterprise Partnerships to create more regional interest – it’s had one meeting with all of them – and “they are getting engaged with the whole process,” he says. Further, UKSA wants to see a network of ‘space incubators’ – specialist business support centres – across the country. But “we’re absolutely going to have to do more in the regional domain,” he says. After all, he adds, our regional maritime, fisheries and agriculture sectors could all make good use of space data.

UKSA also has a remit to provide policy advice on civil space programmes, regularly working with the MoD, Foreign Office, BIS and Cabinet Office on issues including exports policy, national security, and space weather developments. And it’s collaborating with DfE on an education programme for primary school children, aiming to build on the inspiration value of Major Tim Peake, a British astronaut, who will visit the International Space Station with the European Space Agency (ESA) in 2015.

ESA come, ESA go
Much of UKSA’s investment in space is routed through the European Space Agency and pooled with that of other nations to create larger projects, such as the Herschel telescope that’ll look for dark matter. Of UKSA’s £300m budget, £260m goes into ESA. Why so much to Europe, rather than being spent on national industry? Parker responds that ESA’s spending goes back to member nation’s industries according to the investment they make. “Individually, we couldn’t possibly do the breadth of different projects that we do by pooling our money and resources,” he explains. Many British-built satellites are also launched using the European Spaceport in French Guiana, including the Alphasat that Parker has just signed off for launch.

Over the past few years, UKSA has been increasing the amount it contributes to ESA, and the European agency opened a dedicated office in the UK in 2008. Britain is also investing in the Galileo global positioning system, which is being built by the European Commission – a totally separate organisation from ESA. This has, typically, created bureaucratic difficulties, and is the subject of debate at the moment.

Some suggest that ESA should be absorbed into the EU, but Britain opposes this because the EU doesn’t have any experience of managing a technology organisation, and ESA already works well in boosting research and development. Instead, the UK’s position is a “proper British compromise”: we’re pushing for the creation of a new organisation within ESA “that’s operating to EU rules, taking EU money, and reporting in the way the EU wants to report.”

Currently, Britain doesn’t have one of the 12 directorships of ESA; but there’s hope that when the pack is shuffled again in 2015, the UK will be given a place. Parker refuses to comment when asked whether he wants the job; there’s certainly a great deal for him to do domestically before the potential job arises.

It’s time for the photoshoot, and Parker gamely poses with a life-size model of a small satellite. He’s remarkably patient as CSW’s photographer directs him to move all over UKSA’s shared headquarters. The building itself is somewhat bland, and certainly belies its space-age occupants, although Parker insists that plenty of NASA buildings are equally boring.

Much of UKSA’s work spends its operational life tens of thousands of miles away from the UK, but it’s nonetheless relevant to a whole host of Whitehall departments. In a small and nondescript building on an industrial estate in Swindon, big things are happening that are not only boosting British businesses, but also directly improving the lives of people across Planet Earth.

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