Space propulsion systems are a key enabler that underpin all space missions, whether for launch, satellite manoeuvring, exploration, or for defence. These propulsion systems often define the geometry and mission capability of satellite or launch vehicles, and markets are therefore driven by the need for the highest propulsion system performance. Propulsion expertise is not only required for the propulsion industry itself, but also for the UK's expanding satellite manufacturing industry and domestic launch capability, and crossover with other strategic areas like hypersonics.
The UK government is committed to achieving 10% of the global space market by 2030, and is committed to increasing resilience by ensuring UK capability throughout the supply chain. Meeting the UK's targets therefore requires ensuring that there are enough skilled personnel, facilities and funding opportunities to drive growth and innovation in the space propulsion sector. If the UK does not invest boldly in the sector, then in such a performance driven industry it risks being left behind.
There is currently a shortage of skilled propulsion engineers in the UK, which is a major limiting factor in how fast and how effectively companies can grow. Due to the complexity of propulsion systems, training new skilled staff for the industry would be best done at postgraduate level, or through undergraduate courses with specifically focused modules - these typically tend to only be available at a university if there are academic staff within the discipline. There are currently only a few institutions in the UK with such academic staff, however, and therefore not many students have access to the specialist space propulsion teaching needed for them to get jobs in industry.
Whilst there has been some positive trend in recent years, the UK is currently lagging behind other countries in terms of university space propulsion research, and therefore also in providing focused teaching. Part of this is undoubtably due to the historical focus shift away from rocket propulsion in the 1970s, but it is also due to the current low level of funding and the availability of testing facilities.
Currently, EPSRC has little funding focus on space propulsion, and UKSA does not generally fund PhDs or post-docs directly. There are therefore only 6 electric propulsion research groups in the UK, and very little chemical propulsion presence at all. Only 3 institutions have specialist space propulsion teaching modules. These research groups undertake good quality research but are often limited in scope by the available funding. There are several universities with undergraduate-led rocket teams, however, indicating a desire from students to work in the industry that is not being met. Many of these undergraduate students then apply for jobs in industry, with levels of experience that industry either cannot easily accept or must have detailed graduate schemes to supplement. This is a sharp contrast to jet propulsion, where the UK boasts several research centres of excellence with lots of academic groups, high funding levels, high industry engagement (e.g. Rolls Royce) and good downstream revenue from innovation and trained personnel.
Other countries in Europe with similar space industries have nationally funded research institutes specialising in space propulsion, such as Germany (DLR), France (CNES) and Italy (CIRA). With access to significant levels of research funding, these institutes conduct cutting edge research with world-class academic groups and ensure a throughput of trained propulsion staff for industry.
This document proposes that there would be significant benefit to the UK in: