Sep 26, 2010

The UK space industry enters a new era

Estimated Article Reading Time: 5 min.

Three key announcements have propelled the United Kingdom space industry into a new age.

Second only to the United States in space science, the UK’s thriving space sector contributes 6.5 billion pounds a year to the UK economy and supports 68,000 jobs.

The dawn of a new age of cooperation between the UK Space Agency and its Russian and US counterparts arrived after UK Science Minister David Willetts revealed that the UK has signed new agreements with NASA and the Russian Federal Space Bureau during a major speech on space at the recent Farnborough Air Show.

Then came news of the start of a one-year trail programme to design and launch a CubeSat, a shoebox-size satellite that can be fitted with the latest space technology.

The compact size of the satellite – called UKube 1 – will allow the UK to test new equipment and carry out research at relatively low cost.

There will be a competition for companies and academic groups to come up with the most innovative ideas for UKube 1’s payload.

In another development, the UK announced a 4.9 million pounds contract to build an Earth Observation Hub at the International Space Innovation Centre in Oxfordshire, England.

The hub will enable the UK to manage spacecraft operations and process the information collected by future space missions.

The contract has gone to a consortium led by Astrium and the hub will be among the first in Europe that will actively encourage direct collaboration between government, industry and academics.

Mr Willetts said of the new multinational space agreement: “I am delighted to usher in an era of greater cooperation between our nations’ space activities. These historic agreements promise to help us unlock some of the mysteries of the universe and develop a better understanding of our planet.

“These agreements show our international partners view Britain as a major player in the space industry. They will help bring new opportunities for British innovators.”

The CubeSat trial programme will use a spacecraft platform that is under development by the company Clyde Space Limited. The competition winning payloads will be launched on the satellite in mid 2011.

Minister David Willetts said: “Britain’s first CubeSat will bring major benefits to the UK space industry. Firms will now have a cheap and quick way to test their latest prototypes.

“Running a competition to see which experiments will go up with UKube1 is an inventive way to ensure it is fitted with the most creative and innovative payload ideas.”

Dr David Williams, acting chief executive of the UK Space Agency, added: “A CubeSat programme will allow us to fast-track and test some of the UK’s new and cutting-edge space technology and perform unique science at a relatively low cost.

“These satellites may be smaller than your home computer but, with the payloads that our skilled scientists will add to them, they are sure to make up in innovation what they lack in size.”

Craig Clark, chief executive officer of Clyde Space, said: “The launch of the CubeSat Challenge programme is a tremendous opportunity for Clyde Space. As with all space-related business, the best way to market space products is through their successful demonstration in orbit.

“By providing the CubeSat platform, we will benefit immensely from the opportunity and so it is vital to the growth of Clyde Space as a leading CubeSat company. I feel also that this programme is vital for the UK’s commercial exploitation and export of CubeSat technology in this rapidly growing market,” he added.

EADS Astrium, Europe’s largest space company, is also a key supporter of the CubeSat concept. Over the past three years Astrium has led the definition of a national CubeSat programme with numerous partners from academia and industry.

Jeremy Curtis, head of Education for the UK Space Agency, added: “Due to their small size, rapid turn-around and low cost, CubeSats are excellent for education and outreach.

“They can easily be taken to schools and students can be engaged before and after launch, including anything from mission ideas, hands-on development, operations and data analysis. They are a great way to attract and train a future generation of engineers,” said Curtis.

Meanwhile, the 40m pounds International Space Innovation Centre (ISIC) in Oxfordshire is transforming ambition into action with the first contract to create a new capability in Earth observation for the UK, paving the way for a better understanding of our planet and growth in the industrial sector underpinning this work.

The Science & Technology Facilities Council, which is leading the ISIC project, has awarded a 4.9m pounds contract to form the first key element of the ISIC, an Earth Observation (EO) Hub, to a consortium led by Astrium.

The project will develop an end-to-end operations centre on the Harwell campus near Oxford with the ability to run cost-effective satellite flight operations and payload data processing and exploitation.

This development was a recommendation of the recent Space Innovation & Growth Strategy, a joint government, industry and academia initiative that set out a 20-year vision for the future growth of the UK space industry.

Science & Technology Facilities Council chief executive Professor Keith Mason said: “The Earth Observation Hub will enable the UK to operate advanced spacecraft and process the data from them, transforming large amounts of complex information into answers to questions on climate change and its effect on our environment, and laying the foundations for new applications of space data.”

He added: “ISIC is the linchpin of a growing space activity at Harwell Science & Innovation Campus. The European Space Agency has opened its first UK centre here, and other agencies and space companies are very keen to be part of the expansion.”

The Department of Business, Innovation & Skills (BIS) has confirmed an investment of 12m pounds to the centre via its strategic investment fund, kick-starting work at the Harwell Science & Innovation Campus where the ISIC is based.

Science Minister Willetts commented: “The Earth Observation Hub will help UK scientists make the most of the wealth of information we are collecting about our home planet, in vital areas such as monitoring the effects of climate change or so we can respond quickly to natural disasters throughout the world.

“It is the important first step in making the International Space Innovation Centre a reality, linking regional space capabilities and promoting knowledge-sharing between academia and industry. This will support further growth in a sector already worth more than six billion pounds a year to our economy.”

Source: British Embassy in Beijing