Written Evidence Submitted by Blue Skies Space Limited

(SPA0054)

 

The UK is known internationally for the excellence of its university network and research capabilities. Combining this with a well-established and commercially minded space industry offers an opportunity for innovation and global leadership in the space science sector. Blue Skies Space Ltd. is a revenue generating British start-up offering a commercial alternative to the way space science is done traditionally in Europe, US and around the world.

The UK has long made a significant contribution to the international space industry that has achieved so much, with major contributions to science, meteorology, telecoms, the military and many other key areas.  The global space industry is starting to experience a major change from being a government dominated industry to one where innovation and private enterprise are key and the UK needs to take bold action to be at the front of this exciting transformation in order to benefit from future growth and retain a leading position in the sector.  The change is driven by many factors but primarily by a recognition that the traditional way of doing business in space has delivered great results but often quite slowly and at a high cost.  The new way of doing space has the potential to transform space economics by moving away from the bespoke custom design model always operating at the bleeding edge of technology and engineering to a product based approach with the economies of scale.

The aspirations of the UK Space Strategy are not limited to commercial and economic objectives only, but also in ensuring that British science retains a leading and prominent role worldwide. Science missions have not yet benefited from these changes. Blue Skies Space is applying a privately funded New Space methodology to provide a scalable and sustainable commercial service to universities worldwide.

 

Case Study – Scientific leadership

Blue Skies Space has identified a particular opportunity for this New Space approach to deliver outstanding science and develop new markets. It flips the traditional model of central action through exclusive committees and puts the power in the hands of individual scientists.  It moves from a regional approach, where the UK acts through the European Space Agency, to a global approach where UK leadership enables the global community of scientists to work together.

This approach is typified by the first Blues Skies Space mission, Twinkle[1]. This UK led mission is an Exoplanet research satellite that will greatly contribute to our understanding of exoplanets through characterisation of their atmospheres, and is backed by scientists in 16 UK universities who are keen to see the UK lead a high-impact global scientific collaboration.  Twinkle has been proposed because there is a huge pent up demand for this type of mission that cannot be met in full by the traditional approach. While the James Webb Space Telescope will deliver excellent data for exoplanet research, its very high cost and long delays imply there will be very severe rationing on its use which will make it inaccessible for most scientists globally.  By contrast, Twinkle will be a low cost, rapid launch satellite which will deliver science data at an affordable cost.

This model is not specific to Twinkle and will be generalised by Blue Skies Space.  The key is to identify high heritage satellite instruments that can produce unique science data of significant interest to a global community of scientists working in Astronomy or Earth Observation.  These global communities will then choose to subscribe to surveys developed by these unique instruments and these subscriptions will provide a return on investment to enable each satellite to be financed.  This will enable a large fleet of science satellites to be developed to support a range of different science communities, supporting British Universities and British industry to develop new skills and prominence. This innovative model is generating interest worldwide, and has already led to private investments into Blue Skies Space, including from abroad.

This approach has two key advantages over the conventional space agency approach.  The first is that it unlocks new funding from the global community of research scientists that is not accessible to the regional space agencies such as ESA.  This model is highly attractive to scientists and has allowed Blue Skies Space to secure significant pre-payments from over 10 universities from North America, Europe, Asia & Pacific, all keen to be involved in a world-leading science mission. The second reason is that these low-cost missions can make use of existing technology that has been developed by the space industry, perhaps in support of a flagship mission from a major space agency.  This reuse of existing technology is fundamental to the new space model and is very different from the exploratory and pioneering approach of the major space agencies such as ESA who are always seeking to do new things and extend the frontier of the possible.  This agency approach presents a challenge to the quantity of science possible as this does locate their projects at the bleeding edge of new technology, which greatly extends timescales and increases cost.  By restricting a new unique and innovative space science mission to proven technology, it is possible to deliver great science data but at a much lower cost. 

In summary the benefits of this model for the UK;

-          Creating research opportunity for all UK Universities

-          Exemplifying UK Science leadership and commercial innovation globally

-          Further building up UK high-tech manufacturing, who are acting as mission prime

-          Leveraging previous ESA and Governmental investments into the UK sector

-          Creating jobs in a fast-growing SME and sustaining jobs in the UK sector

-          Securing inwards international investment in the UK space sector

 

Case for UK Government support of high-risk and innovative approaches to space

This provides a perfect example of the approach that should be sponsored by the UK government. As well as continuing time-tested approaches, the government should be looking to support new innovative approaches that can deliver exciting new space missions.  All innovation carries risk before the new approach is proven and that can make it slow and difficult to raise private finance. An investment by the government can make the difference that enables a new innovation to get off the ground quickly. With successful innovation, such government investment is a one-time catalyst as once the new approach is proven it will enable private finance, debt and equity, to grow the business rapidly.  With the conventional approach, UK government spend enables a single exciting and worthwhile mission to be developed and deliver its data.  With the innovation approach, the government spend not only enables the data from the first satellite, but it enables the business to get private finance for all future mission so, for a similar investment, the result is not just a single mission but a growing fleet of science missions and an opportunity for the UK to demonstrate leadership in the global space industry.

This requires a new approach to be taken to risk assessment to enable such new innovation.  As well as considering the risk, and in space there are always risk and in new innovation additional risk will always be added in, it is important to consider the opportunity.  If a particular investment should prove successful, then consideration should be given to how large is the upside in terms of high tech, well-paid job creation, great science, export growth and future tax revenue. 

The government needs to consider a portfolio approach where it invests in a number of high potential innovations.  While it is likely that some of these will fail, the portfolio approach gives an excellent chance that one or more of the projects that have been invested in will deliver such outstanding returns that the portfolio as a whole is clearly delivering an excellent return, even considering the failures.  This portfolio approach is fundamental to all investment in innovation and none of the venture capital companies expect all their investments to prove successful; rather the secret is to find the successes that pay for the investments in the entire portfolio.  This portfolio approach needs to replace the current risk adverse approach that sticks to often to the conventional approach and is not sufficiently encouraging the innovation.  Grant programs seeking to foster radical innovation cannot, as typically seen, also seek to remove risk for all programs. Risk should be managed at a programme/portfolio level.

 

(June 2021)


[1]For more information visit www.twinkle-spacemission.co.uk