Written Evidence Submitted by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI)

(SPA0024)

 

‘UK space strategy and UK satellite infrastructure’ inquiry

 

Written response from UK Research and Innovation:

  1. Operating across the whole of the UK with a combined budget of more than £7.9 billion (2021-22), UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) brings together the seven disciplinary research councils, Innovate UK and Research England.

 

  1. Our vision is for an outstanding research and innovation system in the UK that gives everyone the opportunity to contribute and to benefit, enriching lives locally, nationally and internationally. Our mission is to convene, catalyse and invest in close collaboration with others to build a thriving inclusive research and innovation system that connects discovery to prosperity and public good.

 

 

Executive Summary

The following points represent an overview of the UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) response.

 

  1. Space-derived data and infrastructure is critical for civil and defence systems and supports an increasingly broad cross-section of research and innovation activities.

 

  1. Increasing private investment, innovation and commercialisation is transforming the sector at a global level. The UK must act strategically at a national and international level to compete. The space sector is heralded as the next trillion-dollar industry[1] yet the UK share has been declining as the market grows. This share is currently estimated at 5.1%[2].

 

  1. There is currently a strong and growing international appetite to invest in the space sector - the UK has the potential to benefit from this with a change of approach. Further public investment is critical but equally important is the UK’s ability to attract greater levels of private investment.

 

  1. As dependence on satellite derived capabilities increases, so does the need for resilience. Satellite infrastructure is vulnerable to a range of threats including those presented by the growing volume of debris, potential adverse space weather events and cyber attacks. The development of a safe, secure and sustainable space environment also requires international agreement and coordination. A joint commitment to the safe and sustainable use of space has been made at the current G7 meeting and this needs to be actioned.

 

  1. The UK needs to continue to have the capability to deliver space missions. This requires long-term, sustained funding programmes due to the long lifecycle of space missions from inception to exploitation and commercial return. A new strategy must deliver a long term, sustained vision for space, along with the mechanisms to align organisational priorities.

 

  1. The UK needs to increase growth rates and resilience through the following actions:

 

Growth:

Resilience

 

What are the prospects for the UK’s global position as a space nation, individually and through international partnerships;

 

  1. The UK’s global position as a space nation is weakening, with increasing investment by other nations and record levels of private investment in foreign-based businesses. Ongoing technology advances that are improving satellite capabilities and reducing costs, together with the high levels of foreign investment, are driving rapid changes in the sector’s structure and pace of development. The sector is heralded as the next trillion-dollar industry[3] yet the UK share has been declining as the market grows. This share is currently estimated at 5.1%[4].

 

  1. As it is unrealistic to compete at the levels of investment seen in the US and China, the UK has to act strategically both at a national and international level to compete as a mid-level player. Further public investment is critical but equally important is the UK’s ability to attract greater levels of private investment. This requires innovation with the prospect of return. Formal participation in international activities is essential for the UK if it is to leverage ambitious projects.

 

  1. The UK must act quickly and transform its approach to improve prospects for a strong global position. The UK must drive innovation and exploitation, develop national capabilities, direct public investment effectively, attract private investment and negotiate beneficial international partnerships to address capability gaps and pursue shared, large scale ambitions and strategic science goals.

 

  1. The UK is also a pioneer in many areas of research and innovation in space, studying some of the fundamental questions around understanding our Universe and our place within it – based on a UK community of innovative businesses, world-leading universities and research laboratories spread right across the UK. The UK is fourth in the world for publications of space research, and of the 10% most cited around space research, UK papers rank second[5]. This success is founded on strong, sustained investment in innovative science and technologies and long-term support for the best ideas and attracting top talent to the UK. The UK’s current success is propelled by previous investment: for this to be sustained we need to foster the next generation of ideas, of free thinkers and industrial partnerships. The UK needs to continue to have the capability to deliver space missions. This requires long-term, sustained funding programmes because of the long lifecycle of space missions from inception to exploitation and commercial return.

 

  1. A vital part of this next generation of growth is sustaining the UK’s research base and facilitating innovation and commercialisation from it. UKRI has a unique role to play in bringing world leading research and technologies together with pioneering businesses to grow the UK’s share of the global market, providing commercial access and information to world class facilities and expertise, as well as facilitating growth through our campuses and clusters. UK space-related businesses and their ability to innovate and commercialise science and technology developments through applications underpin the economic growth potential of this sector.

 

  1. The UK has been a leader in several key technologies and capabilities including telecommunications systems, space data processing, advanced optical sensors, small satellites, infrared and microwave instrumentation, magnetic measurement, and interferometry[6]. To have this level of international leadership and influence requires decades-long investment in the technology development and in the missions themselves. For example, University College London’s Mullard Space Science Laboratory has provided a series of successful space plasma analyser instruments on space science missions. UKRI grants first supported technology development work in 2001, culminating with ESA’s Solar Orbiter launching with the technology in 2020. This 20-year timescale is indicative of the approach it is critical the UK adopts to realise benefits of public funding.

 

  1. Domestically, there are factors restraining growth of the sector. A sustained, collaborative, and coherent strategy combined with multi-year funding is needed to realise the UK’s prospects as a space nation. We have the potential and the enthusiasm, but without strong roots in the fundamentals in our industry, universities and laboratories, we will not be able to grow. The 2010 Innovation & Growth Strategy[7] established a clear vision and direction which aligned organisations behind it, but the momentum has dissipated, and the new strategy is eagerly anticipated to reset sector ambitions and focus. As a key partner, UKRI stands ready to support delivery of this strategy.

 

What are the strengths and weaknesses of the current UK space sector and research and innovation base;

Strengths

  1. Space has played an important part in the UK’s history and activity has developed rapidly over the last few decades. In 2018/19 the total UK income from the space-industry related activity grew to £16.4bn, a growth rate of 2.8% per annum since 2016/17[8]. Economically, the sector is dominated by ‘downstream’ (utilising services) activity, including satellite broadcasting, but this is enabled by the ‘upstream’ (building and managing satellites) sector, which in the UK is world-class, particularly for small satellites as the industry replaces double-decker-sized satellites with constellations of smaller satellites (so-called ‘NewSpace’).

 

  1. The UK has a strong foundation in start-ups, with structures providing incubation facilities and further support. Two good examples are the ESA’s Business Incubation Centre (BIC), which have helped raise £83m across more than 70 start-ups since 2011 and the Harwell Space Cluster which has attracted and supported the growth of more than 100 companies, including inward investors.

 

  1. UKRI is active across the entire ‘value-chain’ of activities in the space sector from funding collaborative research and innovation from low TRL, through to provision of facilities to supporting business and commercialisation for both traditional and new industries. UKRI maintains a broad portfolio across the space sector and holds several key national capabilities in the form of the National Centre for Earth Observation, the National Satellite Test Facility, the UK Astronomy Technology Centre, and RAL Space.
  2. From dedicated ‘upstream’ programme hubs, to downstream utilisation, space is an inherently interdisciplinary field, requiring the leveraging of multiple UKRI capabilities to best serve our communities. For example, the Centre for Environmental Data Analysis is provided by UKRI through data architecture and processing.

 

  1. Space public engagement is an important part of the science communication landscape. UKRI inspires the general public through a variety of interactive engagement activities that use the ‘space hook’ to reach diverse audience groups across society and engage them in, not only space specific activities, but also the wider STEM agenda.

 

Weaknesses

  1. Lack of co-ordination to enable commercialisation at scale. As the space sector matures, so too must the funding and support mechanisms to increase the capability for companies to scale-up as well as start-up. This will require greater co-ordination across ESA, UK Space Agency (UKSA), MOD, and UKRI funding mechanisms, including the alignment of organisational priorities around a common purpose and outcome orientated development. There is a need to develop a vibrant, and organic market place for space based products and services, which will require a greater commercial focus in UK space strategy. Additionally, despite inward investment, foreign acquisition and overseas scale-up funding risks the return of public investment not being fully realised in the UK.

 

  1. The structure of the industry and a lack of maturity within the supply chains. There are 13 major primes but then a ‘tail’ of SMEs which follow on through sub-contracting within highly specialised fields - with just 13 organisations accounting for 82% of total space income, 119 for the next 13% and 1,086 for the remaining 5%. Only 132 organisations generate space income in excess of £5m[9].
     
  2. Lack of long-term commitment to space science, strategic technology development  and areas such as Earth Observation (EO). For the UK to be a ‘Global Space Science Superpower’, and increase its declining market share, we must work systematically to increase UK leadership. To achieve this, strategic multi-year planning and funding is needed to allow missions and innovation to be conceived, technologies developed, and exploitation capability built. This is a timeframe of multiple decades for necessary maturation of technologies and necessary capabilities. The lack of a national strategic intent has devolved the direction and focus of the space sector to organisations with differing strategic priorities. Inconsistent investment disrupts the ability for communities to attract and maintain international leadership.

 

  1. Insufficient leveraging of expertise and facilities ‘near to’ Government. While collaboration exists between Government entities and UKRI’s portfolio, there are currently no systematic mechanisms for UKRI to support the wider Government community. UKRI together with its wider funded community holds the largest concentration of space expertise in the UK, with a broad remit including basic technology development, conceptual studies, development and operation of large-scale infrastructures and facilities to process space data and produce/test space hardware as well as skills in data processing and analysis coupled with expertise in meeting external deadlines.
     
  2. ESA frequently selects space experiments led by UK scientists; however, despite this success, the UK is falling behind other countries on its ability to fund exploitation from these missions. This is indicative of a wider theme of the UK being unable to exploit space data for research and commercial purposes as well as its competitors. If this continues, it will erode our ability to influence and lead at international levels.
     
  3. The current skills shortage will continue to hinder research and economic growth of the sector if not rectified. In common with other high tech, high growth sectors, access to skilled staff, particularly those with several years of experience is a challenge. UKRI is working closely with UKSA to identify and fund mechanisms to improve skills across the sector, these must leverage existing bodies of expertise. Current initiatives need continued support and expansion to underpin the growth potential of the sector.

 

What lessons can be learned from the successes and failures of previous space strategies for the UK and the space strategies of other countries;

  1. The 2010 Innovation & Growth Strategy was successful at bringing industry, academia and Government together and clustering around a clear vision to reach 10% of global market by 2030[10]. This created a strong willingness and intent, but the infrastructure to co-ordinate and implement the strategy was not in place: leaving delivery to the best efforts across a diverse group of organisations. A new strategy must deliver a long term, sustained vision for space, along with the mechanisms to align organisational priorities.

 

  1. Support for, and stimulation of commercialisation and scale-up, in addition to early-stage research and innovation, is necessary in order to foster a growing and competitive commercial landscape. Implementation of the space strategy should be supported by the necessary and appropriate technical and commercial skills.

 

  1. It is necessary to attract private investment through innovation and prospects for financial return. This requires entrepreneurship as well as technical expertise.
     
  2. It is necessary to leverage related sector strengths, align with national priorities and co-ordinate with associated sectors e.g. Geospatial Commission, Office for AI etc. as well as vertical sector bodies.

What should be the aims and focus of a new UK Space Strategy, including considerations of:

      1. technology;
      2. skills and diversity;
      3. research funding, investment and economic growth;
      4. industry;
      5. civil and defence applications;
      6. international considerations and partnerships; 
      7. place; 
      8. current regulatory and legislative frameworks and impact on UK launch potential; and 
      9. impacts of low Earth orbit satellites on research activities.

 

  1. Economic growth based on strategic research and innovation, enabled by long term funding and delivered by a long-standing skills pipeline should underpin a new UK Space Strategy. It should aim to make the UK a world leader as a place for space.  Strong exploitable innovation built on world class research will attract private investment and valuable international partnerships.

Technology

  1. Overall, high level themes of technology development include challenge focus, capability improvement, scale, resilience, assurance, interoperability and cost competitiveness.  

 

  1. Solution orientated, innovative technology developments, their scalability and their exploitation are core to future UK success in the space sector. There is a need for both near-term and longer-term technology development and an opportunity for a range of innovation that builds UK space based and derived capabilities. These need to scale to compete internationally. Overall, developments must address challenge areas to deliver new and updated capabilities and contribute to economic growth by providing globally competitive products and services. Public sector investment and support should be directed towards global growth areas, building UK comparative advantage and building resilient UK supply chains, where competitive to do so, and scaling UK offerings.

 

  1. Satellite infrastructure and application technologies are inter-related and need to be considered together, in relation to challenge areas. Satellite capabilities and costs inform the nature of terrestrial application, the solution potential, and the end market opportunity.

 

  1. Technology developments should also relate to the differentiated capabilities that satellite technology can contribute, and where relevant, the potential for interoperability with terrestrial systems and data. Examples of differentiated capability include scalable products and services, remote reach, and ubiquitous geographic coverage. These invariably require infrastructure scale, in orbit and on the ground.

 

  1. The UK currently supports some pioneering technology developments that will help enable optical inter-satellite communications, thermal and constellation management, and in terms of terrestrial applications of satellite capabilities, help improve crop yields, enable wider connectivity, validate insurance claims as well as detect risk of infrastructure failure. The range and potential for ongoing and further technology development is vast and could lead to high economic growth for the UK. The recent UK development of quantum communication using satellites which led to $400m private investment in the UK SME, Arqit[11], demonstrates the confidence of private investors in the potential.
     
  2. Emerging innovation and commercial sectors (e.g. in-space manufacturing) should be explored and a strategy developed to support one or two new ‘future bet’ opportunities. As a nation, we are unable to support many new commercial opportunities due to the large cost involved. In order to maximise the chances of success in these new commercial opportunities we should convene new business communities around these new markets on a national and, where appropriate, international basis and seek collaborative efforts where needed.

 

  1. In respect of the satellite applications sector, where growth is predicted to be strongest, there should be a concerted effort to connect capability with needs of the non-space sectors and early engagement with those non-space sectors is essential. A key barrier is embedding new data sources within existing management systems. The satellite applications sector should be encouraged to work more closely with the traditional geospatial sector to embed space data within existing GIS systems.

 

  1. KTN has mapped the UK Space Sector in order to support collaboration in the sector and enable non-space actors to connect to it[12]. The map can also be used to identifying regional clusters, identifying UK capabilities, providing evidence to inform market intelligence strategies, signpost funding and raise profiles of UK space organisations.

 

 

 

Position, Navigation and Timing (PNT)

 

  1. PNT from satellite navigation (Global Navigation Satellite Systems, or GNSS) alone represents 58% of commercial revenues in the global consolidated space economy ($385bn), in comparison, satellite communications is 34% and Earth Observation accounts for 1% of the total value[13].

 

  1. The UK is a world leader in PNT systems at the system and user level, but the landscape is fragmented and uncoordinated. PNT underpins 14% of GDP, so it needs to be a focus of investment and implementation of capability - both government and commercial. Government needs to be an anchor customer to protect critical national infrastructure, while simultaneously enabling the continued growth via innovation of the sector. The Space Strategy must strongly recognise the role PNT plays and link with the UK PNT and Geospatial strategies[14] to unlock the potential of PNT.
     
  2. The dominance of GNSS as a critical enabler for PNT provision is due to the precision, ubiquity and access they provide to a wide range of use cases, far exceeding their terrestrial equivalents. These attributes have enabled a diverse range of new applications in a variety of sectors. GNSS enable environmental protection activities such as precision measurements of ice floes and ocean levels. The ability to navigate precisely in the air, on the oceans or in complex terrain enables greater safety, significant efficiencies, and increased speed.

 

  1. GNSS makes 4G and 5G communications possible and underpins our domestic lives through development of applications such as Location Based Services and autonomous systems. These technologies are developing rapidly, and we are beginning to glimpse the future - drones mappings fields, and robotic delivery mechanisms. PNT is not just about GNSS, UKRI has successfully funded many PNT activities using quantum and advanced micromechanical sensor technologies, it has led the world in the seminal ‘Economic Impact of the loss of GNSS[15]’ study and has pioneered developments in improving the productivity of agricultural processes and construction technologies through advanced PNT developments, including the use of PNT to enable the ‘Internet-of-Things’.
     
  2. The strategy must therefore reinforce the need for a joined-up space and terrestrial PNT system-of-systems, as space is only one aspect of the provision of PNT technology and services. It must also recognise that PNT skills in the UK are declining therefore a sustained, long-term investment is needed not just in technology and services for PNT, but in skills provision and to address the regulation and standards aspects to stimulate innovation and growth.

 

  1. The UK’s investment in the ESA Navigation Innovation Programme for PNT (NAVISP) is showing significant positive outcomes, including attracting large inward investment (Iridium investment in DDK positioning) and demonstrating the value of collaboration between academia and industry to drive growth. The Space Strategy must determine the balance between the use of ESA schemes and the need for national investment programmes in PNT technology and applications.

Satellite Communications

  1. The UK has a strong heritage in the satellite communications sector with UK head-quartered Inmarsat, Goonhilly Earth station (part UKRI funded), and many industry players in the ecosystem. The UK’s strengths in the wider telecommunications sector are also an important factor particularly as space and terrestrial systems become more interrelated. Support needs to be carefully focused in this competitive sector but further consolidation is possible. UKRI is currently engaged in research projects that will move satellite communications to high frequencies enabling higher capacity satellite downlink and increased volumes of data to be downloaded; the UK is leading Europe in this area of research.

 

  1. European Centre for Space Applications and Telecommunications at Harwell Campus is opening a 5G/6G hub which will be an important testbed for 5G, with research centring on the incorporation of Satellite communications into terrestrial provision[16]. This integration is essential for products and services that are particularly data intensive, such autonomous vehicles. 
     
  2. This sector is currently experiencing disruption but has future growth potential. The new non-geostationary entrants will progress service rollouts over the coming few years. The main growth opportunities are anticipated in broadband (particularly areas with limited connectivity), 5G backhaul, mobility, device connectivity (IoT) and government and military.

 

  1. The current sector dynamics present a range of ongoing innovation and growth potential in satellite components, systems and operations as well as the ground segment and applications. A key opportunity is in helping improve the cost to performance ratio. For example, the current and principal challenge facing Low Earth Orbit (LEO) players is affordable user terminals and this represents a key area for ongoing innovation as does the ground segment more widely, including developments in hybrid satellite and terrestrial terminals and devices. The UK supports some ongoing innovation in components and systems, including those related to miniaturisation, and should continue to support and invest further in high potential growth areas. 

 

Earth Observation (EO)

 

  1. Fundamental space science and EO research is the foundation to delivering the wider UK space-agenda; fundamental technology developments support the UK’s continued success in space related research and innovation. EO is a critical component of environmental monitoring, supporting our ability to tackle climate change, mitigate its impact, manage environmental hazards (e.g. food security, flooding and forest fires) and track our progress towards Net Zero.

 

  1. Earth Observation is projected to grow to a revenue value of $8.1bn[17] by 2029 and provide critical contribution to wider geospatial analytics markets valuing in excess of $100bn[18] by 2024. EO already supports the UK economy to a value of £100Bn of GDP. Numerical weather prediction, which is supported heavily by EO, helps deliver more accurate forecasts which support better strategic planning, providing greater resilience and strong economic outcomes. International growth of this sector will be driven by both innovative and solution driven imaging, capabilities, streamlined data delivery and innovative data analytics platforms as well as the ability to scale both constellations and analytics infrastructure. Ongoing innovation in EO sensors, data management and analysis, related instrumentation and systems is enabling wide ranging capability improvements in static and video imagery, as well as increasingly competitive costs. Scalable constellations are also enabling high revisit rates for increasing image frequency. The UK has strengths in EO technology and data exploitation through a number of pioneering industry players which can be utilised to retain an international leadership position, if we act quickly and effectively.

 

  1. The UK science base is hugely influential in EO satellite missions, often leading the science teams that win missions at international level. However, it lacks the national support to deploy our next generation and novel EO technology whether on UK missions or internationally; we are forced to focus only on science data, low TRL activities and calibration. If funded, such missions would be collaborative between science and industry, thus enabling new discovery, economic growth and de-risking of leading UK-led technology in space through one action. 
     
  2. The development and deployment of ground-based instrumentation, as well as assets in space is essential to the collection of EO data; however the processing, analysis, interpretation and integration of these data is fundamental to the effective exploitation of EO capabilities. The processing, analysis, interpretation and integration of EO data is fundamental to the effective exploitation of EO capabilities and innovative software delivery platforms are key to growing the sector. This involves the application and development of AI techniques together with cutting edge computing techniques which are critical in unleashing the value of EO data. AI is enabling faster, more accurate and cheaper data analysis and also, importantly, the integration and fusing of other data. Whilst successful offerings will have global reach, there is a need to understand exactly what strategic aspects of data infrastructure and processing could help enable UK researchers and application businesses. At the moment, many SMEs in the UK and internationally are dependent on Amazon Web Services.

 

  1. There is a need to consider space-based EO systems in a unified approach, ensuring the UK can strengthen both mission technologies as well as the flow and processing of high quality data from the mission, ensuring impact from investment in missions. Dedicated infrastructure for data processing and data flow are essential for the community as well as the development of new applications that can be further exploited.
     
  2. The application of EO satellite technology is already proving valuable to a number of sectors through value adding situational insight products and services that monitor, map, detect and help predict the risk of change. UK developments of EO-based value adding products and services have the potential to create and disrupt UK and international markets, commercial and government. Existing and future market sectors include agriculture, maritime, construction, infrastructure, financial services and markets, mining, resource management, transport and logistics, border control, illegal immigration monitoring and security as well as environmental monitoring including climate and air quality, and coastal erosion among others.

 

  1. International private investment has recently demonstrated the potential and growth of EO innovation, by investing $87m in the EO companies IceEye, and the recent SPAC deal for $450M in BlackSky.
     
  2. Low Earth Orbit (LEO) constellation developments for satellite communications and EO are currently driving growth of the launch sector and this will likely increase in the longer term as commercial space travel and tourism emerge.

 

  1. From this premise, there is increased private investment in launch technologies and opportunities. Given the development of two potential launch sites, this type of scale-up capital is something that the UK should help enable for domestic industry players, but it requires attractive and certain regulation. From October last year, seven out of 11 Special Purpose Acquisition Company deal announcements have been for launch, rocket and flight developments. In addition to two recent deals, this represents a collective potential private investment of approximately $6bn in recent months. Most of these investments are US-based.

 

  1. UKRI has an important role in developing the supply chains for launch vehicles as well as leveraging synergies across sectors. Links between early technologies across research portfolios can be established early through multidisciplinary research. 
     
  2. Low-cost launch could enable new opportunities for UK science to put more exciting assets in space.

Satellite Design, Manufacture and Operations

  1. Technology developments in these stages of the value chain relate to the three satellite technologies of PNT, EO and SatCom and many are common to two or more. Innovation in these stages is fundamental to UK growth and leadership in the wider sector as well as to strengthening the UK supply chain. The UK funds some ongoing pioneering technology advances in components and systems, including those related to miniaturisation, and should continue to support and invest further in high potential growth areas. 

 

  1. The National Satellite Testing Facility, delivered by UKRI, will provide the UK’s first purpose build, comprehensive set of large–scale space test facilities at a single location. It will facilitate the build of bigger and more technologically advanced spacecraft and space payloads and remove the need for UK companies to use test facilities located abroad. Testing facilities are a premium and the opening of the NSTF in October 2021 will be a key sovereign asset for industry and research.

 

  1. LEO developments are also driving growth and changes within satellite manufacturing with high volume production becoming a requirement in addition to the more bespoke process. Important technology developments in this area include applications of AI.

 

  1. UKRI has delivered operations capability through the Operations Centre at the Satellite Applications Catapult and RAL Space at the Harwell Campus, the Chilbolton Observatory, and UKRI additionally houses operations for long term and large scale ESA science and EO missions. Supported companies such as Open Cosmos[19] and D-Orbit[20] provide them for small satellites. 

Enabling Technologies

  1. The development of technologies such as AI, quantum technologies and robotics are also increasingly relevant to space sector growth. AI techniques will, for example, contribute to automated constellation management, manufacturing and other in-orbit developments and are already unlocking the potential of EO data enabling the automated processing and fusing of data, and contributing to the commercial viability of EO applications.
     
  2. Quantum enhanced imaging systems are expected to provide new opportunities in areas such as imaging and range finding in low light, or low-cost multi-spectral imaging technologies. Applications are expected within five years for scientific devices such as microscopes and telescopes, in defence, and in environmental monitoring. A new space strategy must take a holistic approach to ensure technologies are fully integrated with future space activities to ensure the full realisation of benefits from future investments.
     
  3. It is also likely that there will be increasing potential for technology transfer between other sectors, this potential of this must be fully realised. The Harwell Space Cluster is collocated with clusters in EnergyTec, HealthTec and now quantum. More than a third of the organisations in the space cluster work with organisations in another cluster and this cross-fertilisation is opening new opportunities in bigger markets, e.g. SiHealth working across space and health and securing a multi-million pounds investment from BASF.

 

Space Environment Protection

  1. Developments relating to space debris removal and resilience of satellite infrastructure will become increasingly important and must form an important part of the UK space strategy.

Longer term Future In-Orbit Developments

  1. There needs to be a strong focus on crowding in capability and technology that supports space sector impact. For example, involving data, cloud computing and AI expertise to increase the value derived from satellite data, and robotic technology from the nuclear or medical sector to enable in-space manufacturing. Connecting capability and sectors together additionally creates value in terms of increasing the quality of the innovation developed. In order to enable this the space sector needs to become more outward looking and seek innovation and technology collaborations from other key sectors in the UK.

 

  1. Space-based solar power is low-carbon, renewable technology that could provide a resilient, safe, and sustainable energy source. The Technology and engineering underpinning a potential space-based solar power station system are part of UKRI’s research portfolio. Advances in robotics in extreme environments, autonomous assembly, wireless power transmission, and space-based power conversion that would make this and other in-orbit innovation opportunities possible are all supported at low TRLs by UKRI.

 

  1. As referenced in paragraph 36, in-space opportunities that the UK must consider in order to sustain future sector growth need to be explored and strategised. The prioritisation of these requires ongoing evaluation.

 

Skills and diversity

  1. Space research and innovation relies on access to skills across a very broad range of STEM areas. For the UK to meet its growth targets for the space industry, an increasing number of highly skilled people will be needed. Organisational alignment, directed by a strategic programme is needed to ensure better co-ordination of skills investment, including the promotion of equality, diversity & inclusion. This could include support for joint appointments, secondments, and fellowships.

 

  1. UKRI directly supports skills development - we support a variety of roles through our research councils, from PhDs to research fellows. In early careers, UKRI has been working with UKSA to define a new level 4 and level 6 space apprenticeship. 

 

  1. The UKSA 2020 Space Sector Skills Survey[21] evidenced a number of shortfalls within the UK currently, those most relevant to UKRI are outlined below:
    1. The survey5 suggests “a mismatch between what skills the industry needs and what skills the UK Higher Education system produces”. There is a need for the HEI sector to address this through a joined-up approach to ensure the appropriate training mechanisms are in place to support and exploit the continued expansion of space-based research and innovation.
    2. The survey5 notes “…aspects of [the shortfall in skills] include simple shortfall in numbers”. There is a need for expanded support in training activities across UKRI remit to help meet the gap in the number of skilled individuals needed within the UK.
    3. The survey5 demonstrates there are “perceptions that HE courses lag rapidly advancing technologies or lack specificity to the space industry’s particular needs”. There is a need to ensure sufficient brokerage of information exchange between industry and the HEI sector to address this.

 

Industry

  1. All sectors of industry need to be supported and stimulated to innovate and commercialise. The UK also needs to support a faster rate of business scale-up and create greater UK incentives in order to retain successful industry players. Support for an organic marketplace will require mechanisms to support companies from start up to scale up, this will deliver stronger outcomes and increase the space sector’s contribution to the Government’s target of UK investment in R&D to 2.4% of GDP by 2027.

 

  1. UKRI funds research and leverages its facilities to provide training for Apprentices, Graduates and Post Docs. UKRI is also a signatory on the Technician Commitment. STFC currently recruits 40 apprentices, 50 graduates and 65 industrial placement undergraduates every year in engineering and computing. STFC’s award winning apprenticeship scheme is helping to develop future technicians, some of which will have a career in the space industry. UKRI’s inspirational facilities could provide on-the-job training for wider UK needs, as proposed by Skills Factory proposition.

 

  1. The UK needs to develop and support a balanced industry structure with a range of commercially driven primes and high growth SMEs. The enhancement of facilities, funding of later stage (TRL) projects, and close support for leading UK space companies. The UK industry is currently highly concentrated with just 13 organisations accounting for 82% of sector revenue and only 132 organisations generating > £5m sector revenue.

 

Research funding, investment, and economic growth

  1. UKRI investment brings together facilities, expertise, academia and industry – this provides a pool of skilled people to drive industry forward and develop growth.

 

  1. The risk associated with space-related technology development remains relatively high which means that public funding remains essential, but it must be well directed. UK’s approach to risk needs to be well defined and understood. Public sector investment and support should be directed towards global growth areas, building UK comparative advantage and future UK supply chains, where competitive to do so, and scaling UK offerings.

 

  1. National versus ESA: There needs to be strategic rationale informing the amount and nature of funding directed through ESA versus national programmes. All funding must contribute to developments that align with an over-arching national space strategy. Currently, there is a disproportionate amount of UK space funding being delivered through ESA and a stronger national programme would open up other international opportunities and strengthen our geo-return from ESA. UKSA spent £334.2m on ESA membership and delivery, with £59.4m on the national programmes in the years 2019/20[22]. We must develop national capabilities, so we do not have to rely on ESA to deliver on our behalf. The current structure of ESA investment enables a synthetic marketplace effect to take place within the UK. However, it is also important to note of the broader return and leverage subscription to ESA brings.
  2. Access to Horizon Europe funding: While the funding and the broader support offered through the programme has been important, the breadth of capability, long-term vision, trusted frameworks and access to partners across the supply chain have been critical factors driving space science and industry engagement in the programme. The stability and clarity offered by EU programmes have provided UK businesses in particular with the confidence necessary to drive investment decisions.

 

  1. The EU-UK Trade and Co-operation Agreement confirmed the intention for the UK to associate to Horizon Europe, giving the UK access to the programme on the same terms as EU organisations. However, the Horizon Europe regulation contains a greater emphasis than its predecessors on the protection of EU assets, interests, autonomy and security. This has significantly impacted the UK’s access in some themes, in particular quantum and space which includes access to space and space based infrastructures. The funding through Horizon Europe provides access to large space engineering projects, the only source of funding at the scale Horizon Europe offers. The lack of access will be of huge detriment to the UK academic and industry sector and will create a significant impediment to the potential joint, and mutually beneficial, development of space technologies.

 

  1. However, international activity demonstrates the increasing levels of private investment that can be attracted at higher Technology Readiness Levels (TRLs) in the space sector. UKRI is almost unique as a crucial early-stage investor in research and new technologies, long before ESA or UKSA. Funding models need further development to support different business stages. This should include greater access to scale-up funding such as loans and private investment including both venture capital (VC) and corporate venturing. During 2019, UK companies only attracted about 3% of global venture capital raised (excluding outliers including SpaceX and OneWeb.)
     
  2. Research and innovation funding for space and its adjacent sectors needs to be centrally coordinated, predominantly challenge driven, accounted for, and appropriately resourced. However, within the research landscape there is space for incorporating the success of a managed ‘blue skies’ approach. There needs to be a comprehensive, coordinated ecosystem that stimulates innovation and exploitation, supports industry growth and encourages successful industry players to remain within the UK. It is important to coalesce research and industry around key strategic priorities. This approach should not only support economic growth but also have a focus on developing a sustainable space sector that supports positive environmental and societal change.

 

  1. Funding for upstream space activities should be long term (three years as a minimum viable) since space projects tend to be long term by default. This will enable companies to have the confidence that funding will be available to support their business as they develop new products and services that will in turn unlock commercial R&D investment.

 

  1. In respect of the downstream space activities there should also be a stronger focus on supporting innovation through later stage TRLs (5/6+) in order to ensure promising projects are realised as fully established services.

 

  1. Public funding models, expertise and facilities need to support technical risk, apply appropriate mitigation according to development type i.e. upstream versus downstream, allow failure but ensure a fail fast approach, mitigate commercial risk and support speed to market. This can be helped through robust and enhanced coordination of public sector investment in underpinning technology and knowledge transfer capabilities.
     
  2. While there are mechanisms such as the UK Innovation & Science Seed Fund, which kick-start promising technology companies, funding models need further development to support different business stages. This should include greater access to scale-up funding such as loans and private investment including both VC and corporate venturing.

 

  1. UKRI offers sector-generic scale-up funding which helps attract private investment. A few space-related companies have benefited from this funding and there is an opportunity to apply this more widely for strong prospective companies. Current examples include:

 

  1. Special Purpose Acquisition Company (SPAC): These have recently become very popular and are likely to stimulate greater private investment. This investment vehicle and the number of space related announcements indicate the growing appetite to invest in the sector.

 

  1. Government should be the lead customer: while there is work undergoing with the Crown Commercial Service, to keep pace with other nations the Government must be active in procuring both up and downstream technologies. This will stimulate SME growth.

Civil and defence applications

  1. While there are overlaps in operation and thinking, it is vital to think of applications and capacity as a singular, holistic UK capability. The sensitive nature of defence developments notwithstanding, there may be some opportunities for greater technology transfer between defence and civil developments. Synergies and learnings could potentially bring about cost efficiencies and faster developments. Where there is dual use, shared or split funding may also bring about efficiencies.

 

  1. The potential for civil applications is growing from all satellite technology areas. As well as contributing to critical national infrastructure, applications offer the potential for more widespread connectivity, communication on the move and precise, near-real time location and situational intelligence. As such, applications offer significant potential for new revenue streams from products and services as well as domestic productivity gains. Given the global reach of satellite capabilities, civil applications invariably have international markets and so offer high export potential. They must however be solution-orientated and address problems and challenges.

 

  1. Space-related science, facilities and innovation can support decisions and policy making at both central government and departmental levels. While interaction in important policy areas such as flooding, air quality, global climate change and green finance has increased, there is a need for a further strengthening of relationships, including with Defra and the newly-formed Joint Biosecurity Centre[23].

 

  1. In addition, the new National Satellite Testing Facility[24], delivered by UKRI and funded through the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund is an important commercial capability to support future defence needs.

 

  1. EO satellite systems underpin the collection, mathematical analysis and presentation of data to understand our planet as well as measurement and monitoring of critical assets for improved planning and management. In a marine context, Earth Observation datasets can support the development of the blue economy; through identification of future marine energy generation sites, or for mitigation against risk associated with climate change through a greater understanding of ocean processes. Similarly, space monitoring of the cryosphere provide direct evidence of the impact of climate change
     
  2. The 2019 BEIS Green Finance Strategy[25] evidenced the need to incorporate environmental information in financial systems to mitigate against risks such as climate change and support the transition to more sustainable supply chains. EO datasets are a critical component of supporting the use of environmental information as part of financial systems. The Strategy highlights:Earth Observation, combined with artificial intelligence (AI), has the potential to transform the availability of data in our financial system and change how risks, opportunities and impacts are measured and managed by financial institutions”6.

 

  1. Copernicus: Whilst it is good that the UK retains access to Sentinel data, it would be a significant boost for UK application development if we could participate in the future development of the Copernicus programme. Copernicus is a long-term operational system which builds on UK expertise. Participation in the programme enables UK influence on both the design of missions and the quality of data produced. Strategically, all parties win from a UK participation since the costs are significant enough to require multi-nation contributions. No equivalent programme exists elsewhere in the world, and so the UK benefits from participation in a unique system.

 

  1. Terrestrial system integration: Invariably the optimum and commercially viable application solutions will involve integration of satellite capabilities with terrestrial data and systems. This requires compatibility and interoperability. It also improves overall UK resilience.

International considerations and partnerships

  1.                    The development of national capabilities should be the overriding aim of the UK Space Strategy, but the sector is inherently international and requires collaboration on global challenges such as those concerning climate change, space debris, and frontier discovery, as well for some large-scale developments and opportunities. International collaboration is essential for fundamental space science research, the development and retention of unique technologies make us a partner of choice for missions and programmes. The UK’s priorities cannot be met alone - only through collaboration can the UK close capability gaps and leverage a place in the most ambitious and successful space projects.

 

  1.                    There are opportunities for bilateral and multilateral relationships that enable mutually beneficial trade agreements, international policy development and innovation partnerships. The recent agreement for the UK Australia Space Bridge is an early example of one wide ranging partnership. When engaging internationally, UK should enter all international collaborations with clear strategic aims to ensure that the UK receives at least equal value to that which it invests.

 

  1.                    Innovation-led industry partnerships: There are also opportunities for innovation-led country visits to enable industry partnerships and collaboration. In addition to space sector focused activity, there are also opportunities to leverage related sector visits in areas such as satellite applications and relevant verticals as well as wider geospatial activity, robotics, quantum and AI.

 

  1.                    The funding through ESA and also Horizon Europe are key channels for international collaborative R&D. The use of these funding channels needs to be applied strategically and in relation to national capability development.

 

  1.                    In Horizon 2020 the UK secured ca. €76m in funding from the specific space calls in addition to space science and research also funded in programmes such as the European Research Council and the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions. The UK has had particular success in areas such as space robotics, propulsion, space situational awareness and space data applications, for example, RemoveDEBRIS, a €15m UK-led project with a global multi-partner team, whose mission achieved the first ever in-orbit demonstration of space debris capture. The mission performed four active space debris removal technology demonstrations, testing novel technologies, representative of an operational scenario during a low-cost mission. Each partner brought expertise and funding, bringing together an international partnership that achieved through the European framework programme what one nation alone would have been unlikely to accomplish. Ongoing access to Horizon Europe is an important mechanism to facilities international collaboration and to leverage global expertise.

 

  1.                    The strategy must give direction to the delineation between national and international (ESA) programmes.
     
  2.                    Earth Observation datasets are a key source of information to support international sustainable development. EO data can support the production of higher crop yields, monitor illegal mining or deforestation activity and support the sustainable use of water resources for example. This can be especially critical in developing nations where ground-based monitoring is unavailable or unreliable. In parallel to this development use there are significant opportunities for value adding potential in EO services, such as informing risk and resilience decisions.

Place

  1.                    UKRI has actively supported the development of Space Clusters through the co-ordination of the Harwell Space Cluster, deployment of the space facilities at the Higgs Centre in Edinburgh and the development of a new North West Space Cluster. Although space is a national effort, enabled through input from all over the UK there are significant hotspots. UKRI Clusters, UK ATC Edinburgh, Space Park Leicester and UKSA-funded local hubs have demonstrated the ‘place for space’ in a levelling up agenda.

 

  1.                    The Harwell Space Cluster is able to showcase capability and expertise from across the UK to international customers, collaborators and inward investors. The Cluster already acts as a front door and welcomes many delegations every year, connecting them to the key UK stakeholders and companies from across the UK. The space strategy is an opportunity to formalise this role and improve the connectivity across the UK space sector.

 

  1.                   UK Government, particularly the Department for International Trade, has a role in ensuring the coherence of the UK proposition internationally. Albeit that competition between Clusters within the UK is good for driving performance, there should be complementarity and coordination between them to support the development of healthy supply chains. It is important to be able to connect regional expertise and innovation to the national in order to avoid duplication and to maximise the efforts being undertaken at a local level.

 

Current regulatory and legislative frameworks and impact on UK launch potential

  1.                    Regulatory, legislative and standards frameworks that enable new approaches and developments in space are crucial; these frameworks need to be clear and provide certainty. Without this, some UK developments will be delayed, or businesses will take developments overseas.

 

  1.                    To date a legal framework for launch and in orbit servicing has been protracted. New legislative areas will include in-orbit manufacturing, and long-distance point to point travel via sub-orbital and orbital spacecraft.

Impacts of Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites on research activities (innovation)

  1.                    The current international surge in LEO developments has been driven by the advent of small satellites, in which the UK played a key role. This has created innovation potential throughout the entire value chain from the design and manufacture of components and systems, to launch, constellation management, data provision, ground infrastructure and application. The lower costs, lower latency and increased capabilities of LEO satellites are driving particular opportunities for application innovation in satellite communications and Earth Observation at this stage.

 

  1.                    Research and innovation activities need to move quickly in order to keep pace with international developments.

 

  1.                    UKRI will encourage industry and scientists to work together to exploit the huge opportunities offered by LEO constellations as well as to mitigate the potentially harmful effects of LEO arrays on the space environment.

 

What needs to be done to ensure the UK has appropriate, resilient, and future-proofed space and satellite infrastructure for applications including:

      1. navigation systems;
      2. weather forecasting;
      3. earth observation including climate change; and
      4. communication (including broadband)

 

Appropriate

  1.                    The UK must continue to maintain its broad research portfolio to ensure that we can take advantage of space driven technologies and services in support of major societal challenges and drive growth. To do this, long term funding and strategy needs to be provided. Inter- and multi-disciplinary research allows for the leveraging of technology development and service implementation across sectors.

Resilient

  1.                    Space infrastructure is vital to our way of living and therefore requires high levels of system security and protection to ensure continuity of these essential capabilities. The deep system integration found within the space sector means that exploration of new and emerging technologies is vital to reduce downtime and failure. Digital Twins and model-based system engineering approaches can strengthen the security of our infrastructure. Increased cybersecurity also must feature as part of our response to these challenges. 

 

  1.                    Space is a critical national infrastructure sector in its own right, and so all of the improvements noted will improve national resilience in technology, skills, people, and capabilities. SWIMMR (Space Weather Instrumentation, Measurement, Modelling and Risk) is a £20m four-year programme that will improve the UK's capabilities for space weather monitoring and prediction, funded by UKRI. Through projects such as this, the UK can increase its resilience to risk factored events.

 

  1.                    Research and innovation in the development and application of EO systems and services is essential to support policy decisions and actions for the public good. In addition to the provision of services and economic growth, advances in the application of EO are a critical component of support environmental monitoring, tracking emissions in the pursuit of Net Zero and forecasting extreme weather events, for example.

 

Future Proof

  1.                    Recent developments in mega-constellations offer the opportunity for global broad bandwidth communications, amongst other applications. They also present a considerable investment opportunity for supporting research and technology, in key areas of UKRI’s strengths. However, it is only through sustained, long-term investment and strategy that the next generation of technologies can be developed.

 

 

 

(June 2021)


[1] Morgan Stanley 2019

[2] Size and Health of UK Space Industry 2020

[3] Morgan Stanley 2019

[4] Size and Health of UK Space Industry 2020

[5] Measuring the Economic Impact of the Space Sector, OECD 2020

[6] UK Space Science: a summary of the research community and its benefits, SPAN 2021

[7] A UK Space Innovation and Growth Strategy 2010 to 2030

[8] UK space industry: size and health report 2020

[9] Size and Health of the UK Space Sector 2020

[10] 2010 Innovation & Growth Strategy

[11] Arqit raising $400 million with a SPAC to launch quantum encryption satellites in 2023

[12] https://ktn-uk.org/programme/space-satellite-applications-landscape-map/

[13] Euroconsult Space Economy Report 2020, Euroconsult

[14] UK 2020 – 2025 geospatial strategy, SBPP page

[15] https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/the-economic-impact-on-the-uk-of-a-disruption-to-gnss

[16] ESA Satellite 5g Overview

[17] Northern Sky Research, October 2020

[18] BCC Research, 2020

[19] Open Cosmos

[20] D-Orbit

[21] UKSA Space Sector Skills Survey 2020

[22]https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/901360/HC606_UK_Space_Agency_Annual_Report_2019-20.pdf

[23] Joint Biosecurity Centre

[24] National Satellite Testing Facility

[25] BEIS Green Finance Strategy